Flames of fire lick his body like golden serpent tongues,
like the mouths of women in love.
Normandi Ellis ‘Awakening Osiris – The Egyptian Book of the Dead’
One of the ideas embodied in the Taliesin story, at first sight seems nonsensical. Ceridwen swallows a seed and becomes pregnant. Since the ancients based their mysteries on the processes of conception, gestation and birth, as we can see from the sacred monuments themselves, why does the story depict an act which could never lead to conception?
Ceridwen swallowing the grain is a clear image of the act of fellatio. We might think this interpretation is too literal – imposing a twentieth-century psychological interpretation on an old myth – with the argument running that psychologists have been obsessed with sex ever since the time of Freud. We could indeed dismiss this interpretation, were it not for the fact that earlier in the tale Gwion hints at this interpretation himself, by sucking his thumb to gain enlightenment. The thumb in palmistry and symbology has traditionally represented the phallus. On sucking his thumb, Gwion swallows three drops, as Ceridwen later swallows one grain.
A literal interpretation of the symbolism would suggest that since Gwion is sucking his own thumb, auto-fellatio (a practice only a few rare individuals are able to perform) is being depicted, but a symbolic reading says that this is an image of the ourobouros – the serpent that eats itself – an alchemical symbol that conveys the idea of Oneness: that each of us is complete as a microcosm of the Universe. Just as the shattered pieces of a hologram each contain an image of the whole hologram, so this idea suggests that each of us, though incomplete and individual, is at the same time universal and complete.
This image of a man impregnating himself, renders him both active and receptive, and therefore symbolically both male and female. In this way it depicts the marriage of the masculine and feminine sides of our nature: the alchemical wedding and Jungian ideal of animus and anima united. In alchemical texts, and Jungian psychology, this image is sometimes depicted as a hermaphrodite. And in an early Gnostic Christian text, found in the Nag Hammadi caves in 1945, this same image is used, but with a feminine emphasis, when a divine female figure says “I am the Voice..[It is] I [who] speaks within every creature…I am androgynous. [I am both Mother and] Father, since [I copulate] with myself…”
The graphically sexual nature of these images should not distract us from trying to understand their symbolic meaning. In an Egyptian papyrus, the earth god Geb is depicted in an act of auto-fellation, reminding us of Osiris’ question in the Book of the Dead: “Can you speak your destiny, create life for yourself from yourself?”. After planning the multiplicity of creation in his heart, the Egyptian god Ra-Atum caused the first division of male and female in the same way, by taking his seed in his mouth, and then spitting out the god of air and the goddess of moisture. In Ireland, Fionn sucks his thumb like Gwion, and the phallic upright menhirs found in the Irish landscape are often called ‘Fionn’s thumbs’ by locals. Gwion sucking his thumb provides us with the clue that the spiritual journey is essentially one that can only be performed by the Self, and which requires the inner marriage of both the masculine and feminine natures; but in pre-figuring Ceridwen’s seed-swallowing, he also points to another truth: that at a certain moment the journey entails a surrender to the Goddess, the feminine principle.
When Ceridwen swallows the grain of wheat she becomes pregnant. The fact that this is an impossible, fantastical idea gives us a clue that the story is telling us that the meaning is not literal – that we should pay attention.
Taoism, Tantra and Druidry May Convey the Same Teachings
The act of Ceridwen consuming Gwion as a seed points to the possibility that Druidry was well aware of the importance of the oral drive in human spirituality, and that, like Taoism and Tantra, it forced no separation between physical, sexual behavior and spiritual practice. This interpretation suggests that the incident of Ceridwen eating the grain hints at a practice which gives a new meaning to the term ‘oral tradition’ and which has only been openly discussed in Taoist writings of ancient China, and recent Western books on sacred sexuality. In these writings we discover that, with careful discipline, adepts were initiated into the practice of sacred oral intercourse in the belief that good health and long life could be obtained in this way.
Since the cauldron is symbolic of vulva and womb, and since the three drops of Awen come from the cauldron, this could be interpreted as suggestive of a Western counterpart to the Eastern Taoist and Tantric practices which advocate finding enlightenment, staying healthy and living to a great age by seeking the Force, the Elixir Vitae, from the cauldron of the Goddess as embodied in a woman. In both Tantra and Taoism women are said to produce a ‘threefold elixir’, which texts from the Ming period in China refer to as the ‘Great medicine of the three peaks’. But we must remember that as well as Gwion drinking the cauldron’s three drops, Ceridwen swallows Gwion, which suggests a mutual nourishing that includes both cunnilingus and fellatio.
While it might be tempting to believe in such a specific and pleasurable solution to the question of finding the elixir of life, and while such a practice might well form part of a sensuous spirituality that worships Deity through the human form, many of us may not be able to, or may not wish to act out this aspect of the oral tradition so literally.
Instead we may choose to be fed with divine energy from the God or Goddess, not through a human intermediary, but by partaking of a symbolic feast.
The Importance of the Mouth in Spiritual and Religious Practice
‘Oral’ is an adjective used to describe a tradition such as Druidry whose teachings were not written down, but were conveyed orally – from ‘mouth to ear’. I suggested, as a pun, that oral traditions, such as Druidry, might also have taught the benefits of oral sex, when undertaken as a sacred act. This was certainly true in the case of Tantra and Taoism, and may or may not have occurred with Druidry, but what is undeniably true is that oral, ingesting behavior lies at the heart of human religious practice.
Ingesting substances orally, in the form of sacred feasts, is an important feature of nearly all religions. All the traditions that developed in the Near East and Mediterranean evolved sacred meals of bread, and usually wine – both as symbolic of the harvest, and of the body and blood of the vegetation god. In some cultures, however, the feast was of hallucinogenic mushrooms, as in the earliest manifestation of the cult of Dionysius in Greece. It was only when Dionysus worship was legalized in Athens, that wine was substituted for toadstools.
Wine was used not only in the cult of Dionysus, but also in the cult of Bacchus, Attis, Adonis, and in the Eleusinian mysteries. In these Mysteries, the candidate for initiation was shown an ear of wheat and was told “In silence is the seed of wisdom gained”. He or she was then given wine to drink. The sacred feast of the eucharist was directly borrowed from classical paganism. Some Christians believe that the wine in the eucharist chalice is symbolically, not actually, blood, but others, such as Roman Catholics, espouse the doctrine of transubstantiation, which teaches that at the time of the celebration of Mass, the wine becomes the blood of the Saviour. Deep within the symbolism of this ceremony lies the belief that we can receive energy – life itself – through ingesting magical substances which convey the life-force of the gods, whether they be the hallucinogens favored by certain shamanic cultures, or the less dramatic sacred feasts of most religions. Stories of vampirism draw on the same belief: vampires obtain eternal life by drinking blood. And the magical rationale of cannibalism holds that ingesting small amounts of another’s body also confers power.
When Sir James Frazer discovered the widespread nature of such beliefs, he saw them as barbaric and primitive. He hoped that humanity would eventually evolve away from a need to symbolically ‘eat God’s flesh and drink his blood’.
The Freudian sees all these acts as stemming from the oral stage of development – seeking comfort and security from the sucking and ingesting reflexes, and from the need to feel close to Mother and to receive nourishment from her. If we were babies or children, we would simply seek out the breast or food. Mature, adjusted adults, would seek security and comfort through their relationships, and through their erotic lives. Religious practices which involve ingestion, such as the Mass, from the Freudian perspective, are simply attempts to cloak the fundamentally instinctual nature of our oral drive. But this perspective fails to appreciate that the oral drive can be both instinctual and spiritual – representing an urge to connect not only with our biological mother, but with the Great Mother, the Goddess, too.
While the need for sacred feasts may come partly from an infantile, instinctual urge to be nourished by the breast, we need to look deeper than Freud to understand the ubiquity and centrality of sacred feasts in religious practices. We need to look deeper to understand the oral drive itself. This powerful drive arises out of the need we all have to be nourished. But the nourishment we need is not purely physical – it is emotional and spiritual too. In the Celtic tales, the Goddess, or the gods, via the cauldron, provide all these levels of nourishment – from poetic and divine inspiration to physical food and sexual pleasure. Like a child turning to its mother, we can return again and again to the cauldron, to gain succour, to suck milk, to feel warmed. We can climb into it, like a hot tub, and bathe in milk: in Celtic myth wounded warriors could bathe in the warm milk of a cauldron and emerge ready for more battle. The Celtic Druid tradition, as expressed in these – and other – stories, is generous and inclusive. It suggests we can allow ourselves to express our oral drive sexually, physically, emotionally and spiritually.
This wholistic understanding would view eating a meal, taking bread and wine in a ceremony, enjoying kissing, fellatio or cunnilingus, as all contributing to our well-being. But rather than this understanding offering a license for self-indulgence, it tells us that each of these ways of nourishing ourselves, when approached with awareness and responsibility, can act as gateways to self-realisation, opening us to deeper levels of meaning, and deeper experiences of communion. It invites us to open ourselves to the love and the nourishment of the Mother, of Deity, through any, or some, or all of these different channels. Tantric and Taoist alchemists treat the human body as a temple, and commune with divinity through relating orally to it. Teresa Neumann took only the communion wine and wafer once a day, and such was her sense of being nourished by God in this way that she apparently lived for years with no other food. A Bulgarian spiritual teacher, Omraam Mikhael Aivanhov, taught Hrani Yoga – a way of spiritual realisation through eating every meal in a sacred way.
It seems that we can commune with Deity through one oral channel, through several, or through them all, and it is only when the desire for fulfilment through one or more channels becomes distorted or repressed, that we find ourselves over-eating, smoking, or damaging ourselves in other ways.
Ceridwen shows us how we can become creative
Returning to the story, by suggesting oral, rather than genital intercourse Ceridwen may be hinting at a practice of sacred sexuality, but she is also showing us the symbolic nature of the act: the pregnancy is metaphoric, not actual. The tale is not really about her pregnancy: it is teaching us about creation – it is showing us how we can be reborn, how we can become creative, how we can become poets – it is teaching us about the mystery of language, about the magic and creative power of the Word.
When Ceridwen becomes pregnant by eating a grain, she is telling us that we can become pregnant, and can give birth to something new in our lives, by taking in grains too – seeds in the form of ideas and inspiration. She is showing us that we don’t have to have sex to be reborn – the rebirth of the Self occurs through the fertilisation of consciousness, not the body. The story is telling us that the head can conceive, the mouth can give birth. Seeds – in the form of ideas and inspiration, song and poetry – can leave the mouth, just as physical seeds, in the form of sperm or wheat or bread, can enter it.
A fundamental axiom of the perennial wisdom traditions, first recorded in Egypt, is ‘that which is below is like unto that which is above, and that which is above is like unto that which is below’ which is often abbreviated to ‘As above, so below’. This axiom ‘As above, so below’ also points to the fact that we learn about the biggest, or most distant things in life from looking at the closest or smallest things – which is why physicists seeking to understand the Universe look at the tiniest particles of matter. It means we can find Deity in the human, Spirit in matter. Alchemists based all their endeavours on this axiom – seeking the most spiritual in the ‘basest of matter’. They went down into matter, to go up into Spirit – ‘As above, so below’. The Druid alchemists taught Ceridwen, so it is no accident that she should engage in an act which typifies this alchemical descent. It is an act which holds a creative potential quite distinct from genital coupling. William Irwin Thompson in The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light points to this when he says “In Kinsey’s original studies of American sexual behavior in the nineteen fifties, he found that in general the working classes did not indulge in oral intercourse, but that the intelligentsia revelled in it. The more conscious and intellectual the individual, the more the face literally confronted the genitals in a mysteriously compelling act that seemed to touch the very foundations of consciousness… John Updike has expressed this mystique in his novel Couples: ‘Mouths, it came to Piet, are noble. They move in the brain’s court. We set our genitals mating down below like peasants, but when the mouth condescends, mind and body marry.’ ”
Symbolically, oral intercourse unites Mind and Body, Spirit and Matter – the mouth representing Spirit, the genitals Matter. The mouth conveys the power of Spirit, of ideas and inspiration, which express themselves through the word. Ideas and inspiration are only of value if they are embodied, and it is through the genitals that embodiment occurs. As William Irwin Thompson writes, by uniting tongue and penis, lips and labia, the creative power of language meets the embodying power of sexuality: “Thus when poets, as initiates of language, celebrate oral sexuality in the face of the shame and indignation of the shopkeepers and their censors, they express a mystique in which the word of the female is joined to the seed of the male, and the word of the male is placed in the womb.”
Here the ourobouros is depicted, not by a single male engaged in auto-fellatio, but by a couple engaged in mutual oral intercourse – symbolising mutual nurturing and mutual impregnation with ideas. If the story of Taliesin were to be retold in today’s liberal climate, perhaps it would be the task of the story-teller to recount a version in which this mystique is suggested – in which Taliesin is depicted as being reborn, not as a result of physical impregnation, but as the result of a conception that is truly immaculate.