Author Ceridwen Dovey was born in South Africa, raised both there and Australia, and was educated at Harvard University, doing postgraduate work at New York University. Living in Sydney, Ceridwen says Australia feels like home, but South Africa remains part of her, and she has ties to the United States as well.
Ceridwen’s book Only the Animals was published last year, has just come out in the UK, and will be released in the US later this month. It’s very unusual, with the souls of ten animals who have died in human conflicts telling their own stories. Each beast also pays tribute to a particular writer who has written about animals, from Henry Lawson to Virginia Woolf to Ted Hughes, and these can be playful as well as moving (imagine a mussell’s journey to Pearl Harbour in the style of Jack Kerouac, for example).
Only the Animals has been shortlisted for numerous awards, and won the Steele Rudd Award for a short story collection at the 2014 Queensland Literary Awards. It’s a beautiful, wise book which really gets under your skin and remains with you, long after you turn the last page. Hopefully it will be appreciated overseas as well.
In Welsh legend, Ceridwen was an enchantress. According to a medieval tale, Ceridwen had a son named Morfran who was hideously ugly, and she sought to make him wise since he was never going to coast along on his looks.
She mixed up a magical potion in her cauldron which would give the gift of wisdom and poetic inspiration, and a long drawn-out process it was. The potion had to be boiled for a year and a day, and she outsourced the workload, having the fire tended by a blind man while a young boy named Gwion kept stirring it. Only the first three drops of the potion would confer wisdom: all the rest was deadly poison.
Three drops of the hot potion spilled onto Gwion’s hand as he stirred, and instinctively he put his thumb in his mouth to cool the burning. As soon as he did, he gained all the wisdom and knowledge that had been meant for Morfran. The first piece of knowledge he gained was that he’d better scram as Ceridwen was going to be peeved beyond belief. Correct! She was furious.
Gwion turned himself into a hare so he could run fast, but Ceridwen became a greyhound and ran even faster. He jumped into a river to swim away as a fish, but she transformed into an otter. When he turned into a bird to fly away, as quick as thought she was an eagle chasing after him.
Finally he turned himself into a grain of wheat. I know what you’re thinking: all the wisdom in the world, and the best he can come up with is wheat? I mean, come on, at least turn invisible or something. For some reason, Ceridwen turned herself into a chicken and ate the wheat. Not sure why she had to be a chicken to eat wheat; probably showing off.
When Ceridwen became pregnant, she knew it was that crafty little Gwion growing inside her. (I know wheat doesn’t go into your uterus when you eat it; you have to throw all rational thought out the window, because magic). Ceridwen planned to kill the baby as soon it was born, but he was so beautiful that she just couldn’t do it. Due to her wonderful nurturing instincts, she chucked him into the ocean instead, wrapped in a bag.
The bag washed up on shore, and a prince who was fishing caught him instead of a salmon, and took him home. He knew the kid was something special, because he recited poetry all the way back to the castle. He named him Taliesin, and Taliesin became the greatest of the Welsh bards, and later the chief bard at King Arthur’s court.
Ceridwen never bothered making another potion for Morfran, but if you’ve been worried about him all this time, don’t be. He became one of King Arthur’s warriors, had a beautiful white horse, and survived Arthur’s final battle because he was so hideous that people thought he must be a demon, and ran away in panic.
The oldest known version of the name is Cyrridven, translated as “crooked woman”, because cyrrid means “crooked, bent, hooked”, and ben or ven means “woman, female”. A popular theory is that the name is a corruption of cerdd, meaning “poetry, music”, and gwyn, meaning “white, blessed”, to be understood as “sacred poetry”. I find this etymology too convenient to modern sensibilities to be convincing.
In many ancient traditions, travelling in a crooked or winding path is considered a powerfully magical thing to do (think of labyrinths, for example), so “crooked woman” might be understood as meaning “woman of magic power” – spot on for an enchantress.
Ceridwen is a very magical figure, and her story has several ties to mythology. The thumb sucking leading to great, yet unlooked for, wisdom, reminds us of the Irish hero Finn McCool, who sucked hot oil off his thumb while cooking the Salmon of Knowledge. Is it just coincidence that the prince caught Taliesin while fishing instead of a salmon?
Another is the magical duel, where two sorcerers turn themselves into a succession of creatures until one takes a form the other cannot defeat. There is a faint echo of shamanism here, and it might remind you of the Irish legend of Fintan the Wise, who was able to turn himself into a salmon in order to escape the Great Flood. Another connection to salmon and wisdom!
Ceridwen really appealed to people’s imaginations, and she became seen as not just an enchantress but a goddess of poetry and wisdom. The Victorians identified her as an early pagan goddess, and in modern Paganism she is a goddess of rebirth, knowledge, and inspiration. This is a meaningful modern mythology for Ceridwen, although Welsh scholars tend to get a bit sniffy about it as a 19th century invention.
While the character was known in medieval literature, the name was not used in everyday life, and the form Ceridwen dates to the 16th century. Ceridwen has only been in use since the 19th century revival of old British names, and originated in Wales.
The name Ceridwen features is the novel How Green Was My Valley; Ceridwen is the narrator’s sister. The book is set in the Victorian era, and it is barely possible that a Welsh girl of that time would be called Ceridwen, as it was just coming into use. The author Ceridwen Dovey is named after the literary character.
Ceridwen is in sporadic use as a baby name in the UK, and in 2013 less than three babies were given the name Ceridwen. In the US last year, less than five babies were named Ceridwen.
Ceridwen is a genuine but rare name, and something of a contradiction, as it has medieval origins but is essentially modern – something which causes no end of trouble for the Renaissance Fair crowd, or at least the bodies which approve their names.
To me it seems like a “cool mum” name, which sounds wild and artistic on someone of around my generation, but is hard for me to imagine on a new baby. Perhaps it’s because it fits in so well with the name trends of the 1960s and ’70s, as it sounds rather like a cross between Kerry and Bronwen.
However, this is a name from Welsh legend which will appeal to those wanting a strong, unusual girl’s name which is magical and imaginative. The pronunciation is ker-ID-wen, but English-speakers may prefer KER-id-wen, which gives the obvious nickname Ceri.
(Photo of Ceridwen Dovey from The Australian)