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The Fferyllt

In the story of Taliesin, Ceridwen is said to boil a cauldron of “Inspiration and Science”, according to “the arts of the books of the Fferyllt”. She wishes to bestow knowledge of the mysteries on her son, to compensate for his ugliness. The cauldron has to boil for a year and a day and she appoints the blind Morda and a youth, Gwion Bach, to tend it. Her plans fall astray when three drops from the cauldron splash onto the thumb of Gwion Bach. As he sucks the hot liquid from his thumb he realises his danger from Ceridwen and flees. Ceridwen pursues him and they both undergo a series of transformations or shape-shiftings until as a grain of wheat Gwion is eaten by Ceridwen as a hen. Ceridwen becomes pregnant with him and when he is (re)born she sews him into a leather bag and throws it into a river because he is so beautiful she could not bear to kill him. He is rescued by Elphin who proclaims “Behold the radiant brow” on seeing his forehead. Thus he is named Taliesin. He goes on to become an important Bard and magician in the court of Elphin and through-out the land.

So Ceridwen, a Goddess of the Celtic tradition, gains the knowledge to brew her cauldron of inspiration from the “books of the Fferyllt”. As we have seen just three drops from this cauldron lead to the transformation of the boy Gwion Bach into the poet and magician Taliesin, it is a very potent brew. Who or what the Fferyllt are though, we are never told, though the word fferyllt remains in modern Welsh as “fferyllydd” for chemist or pharmacist. Below are some further references to the “fferyllt”, who are sometimes referred to as “Druid Alchemists”. Vyvyan Ogma Wyvern offers a speculative etymology for fferyllt in the last piece.

The story of Taliesin’s initiation into knowledge and wisdom also bears resemblance to the story of Finn MacCool who whilst working under the tutelage of the druid seer Finnegas is set to tend the cooking of the Salmon of wisdom. Three drops of the salmon spit onto Finns thumb and he gains the divine knowledge that Finnegas had sought. In this story though Finnegas acknowledges Finn has the person whom the knowledge had been destined for.

NB: Lewis Spence uses an alternative spelling of “pheryllt”, I have left the spelling as in his original work.

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British & Irish Mythology by Caitlin Mathews & John Mathews

“Fferyllt (W) Often translated as the Fairies, Fferyllt is probably derived from the Welsh for Virgil “Fferyll”, who had a reputation in medieval times for being a magician and alchemist. Ceridwen is said to have consulted the books of the Fferylllt in preparing her cauldron of inspiration which Gwion drank. “Fferyllt” means chemist in modern Welsh.”

Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin Mathews & John Mathews Pages: 233-234

“In the Story of Taliesen, Ceridwen’s cauldron is kept brewing for a year and a day, its ingredients gathered by her in accordance with “the arts of the book of fferyllt”. The fferyllt are the ancestoral alchemists of British tradition, beings who maintain the spiritual heat of the land. Their abode is in the high places of Snowdonia at Dinas Affaraon, the Fortress of the High Powers, where they are associated with the governance of the dragons, the symbolic guardians of the energy of the land.”

The History & Origins of Druidry by Lewis Spence Page: 58

“In the same way the tradition concerning Pheryllt of Snowdon is in no sense accountable to authority, although fugitive allusions concerning them are occasional in the Welsh poems. They were said to be a mystical brotherhood who dwelt in the secret city of Emrys, situated on Snowdon, a site identified by Gibson, the commentator of Camden, as occupying the summit of “the Painting cliff”, and with certain ruins of a fortification there known as Broich y Dinas, on the top of the height of Penmaen. In The Book Of Taliesin “the Books of the Pheryllt” are alluded to in connection with the myth of the goddess Cerdiwen. And an ancient Wlesh manuscript quoted by Dr. Thomas Williams asserts that this brotherhood maintained a college at Oxford prior to the foundation of that University! The aim for ancient metallurgical art in Welsh is Celvyddydan Pheryllt, “the arts of Pheryllt”. But there is nothing to associate this tradition with Druidism in any way, and it appears as representative of that phase of legend in which a modicum of obstinate and reiterated statement gives rise to a sentiment that an ancient group of facts has been overlaid by a patina of fanciful elaboration.”

The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain by Lewis Spence Page: 144

“While on the subject of Snowdon, I should like to refer to the somewhat neglected topic of the Pheryllt, who, says tradition, were a cast of priests associated with the mysteries of the secret city of Emrys, situated on Snowdon. In the Book of Taliesin we are informed that the goddess Cerdiwen was determined “agreeably to the mystery of the Books of Pheryllt to prepare for her son a cauldron of water of inspiration and knowledge”, with due attention to the books, astronomy, and to the hours of the planets - that cauldron which, in fact, we read of in the myth of Taliesin, the three drops of which afforded him his bardic inspiration. The Pheryllt, or “Ancients”, are occasionally mentioned by the bards of Wales and an old chronicle quoted by Dr. Thomas Williams states that this brotherhood had a college at Oxford, prior to the foundation of that University. That they were perhaps regarded by tradition as an ancient caste of alchemists appears probable from the circumstance that the term for the ancient chemistry and metallurgy is Celvyddydon Pheryllt, that is, “the arts of Pheryllt”. They seem to have been associated with the cult of Ceridwen and to have had their headquarters in Emrys, in the mountains of Snowdon, the city of the dragons of Beli, which was also known to the Welsh tradition as Dinas Affaraon, or “the place of the Higher Powers”. This site is alluded to in The Black Book of Carmarthen as the centre of mystical rites and by Gibson, Camden’s commentator, as occupying the summit of “the Panting Cliff”, on Snowdon itself. It is indeed identified with the ruins of an exceedingly strong fortification encompassed by a triple wall on a eminence known as Broich y Ddina, “the Ridge of the City”, which forms part of the summit of Penmaen. If Gibson’s statement be credible, this place was of immense size and solidity. It was in this city, legend assures us, that in the time of Beli and in that of Prydain, the son of Aedd the Great, those dragons were concealed which drew the car of Ceridwen and were so closely identified with important passages in British legend. Here, too, were deposited by a mysterious sow the cub of a wolf and an eaglet, according to a myth contained in one of the Welsh poems.”
“All this I need scarcely say, is by no means accountable to authority, but I think that, as in the case of all tradition, it has a background. As Professor Gruffydd remarks of Iolo’s authenticity in respect of a certain tradition, the old bards “must have go it from somewhere”. Even the most fantastic legends possess a modicum of fact, whatever the most exacting of mythological critics may say, and in the alchemists of Emrys, their dragons and other grotesqueries, I think I see the remains of a tradition referring to some primeval brotherhood of magical predilection highly coloured by the fictional genius of an imaginative peasantry. I do not know what modern Welsh Archaeology has pronounced concerning the “ruins of Emrys” on Snowdon, and indeed can discover nothing on that head. It’s conclusions, if any, could not fail to be interesting.”

Etymology of Fferyllt by Vyvyan Ogma Wyverne
Hallo, I am surprised that you could find no better etymologies for the word ‘feryllt’ and its variant spellings. The problem might arise from a general and unjustifiable reluctance among Celtic historians to find Irish-like words in use in Roman Britain and since then.
An assumption that Ceridwen is English or Welsh could also be in the way. If you accord ‘feryllt’ a pre-Roman Expansion origin and allow that it is cognate with ‘Vergil’ who’s name was associated with the feryllts’ crafts, then instead of assuming that the Welsh were deeply impressed with the Roman poet of that name, you should recall that Vergil was Celtic, from Mantua in Cisalpine Gaul, and belonged to a long-standing tradition which a little research shows was widespread throughout Celtic and Celto-Germanic Europe.

It may have been active in Britain, or Ceridwen may have been among the Celtic refugees who fled to Britain during the Roman campaign in Gaul and remained there during the occupation, importing her craft and perhaps her books which have since been lost or else they were lost in the flight, her history having been recalled as we it have today.
Vergil’s name was really a title, and Vergilius is a Romanised version of it. ‘Ver’ is a Roman spelling of a word which would be spelt in modern Irish ‘bhfear’, which is ‘fear’ meaning ‘man’ with the initial consonant affected by eclipsis. Gil is a variant of Cil (as in Columcille, Kildare and Killarney), again with the initial letter affected by eclipsis. It is related to Ceilidh, Coll, and of course, Keltoi, or Celt. From Coll we get ‘col/aiste’, ‘cloister’, college and the Latin derived words cult, and culture etc are cognates.

Some P-Celtic variants are the Pol of Polglaze, the Pell of Pellinor and Pwyll. It is cognate also with Palace, polis, police, and via the St Paul/Saul of the Bible, is related also to Anselm and Solomon, which means Sol of Amon. Northern Germanic variants include schul, school and skald, and it is very closely related both in form and meaning to the word Guild.

If you take the word ‘guild’ and lenite the initial g, it would give what the modern Irish might spell gheild, and if you then pronounce the final d hard it would be pronounced as the yllt in feryllt is pronounced.

In the Roman spelling, the gil is an eclipsised form of Kil- which would be spelt gCill in modern Irish spelling.

So Feryllt means Guildman, or similar. How much the ‘guild’ of Vergil or Ceridwen resembles the craft guilds well known to historians and folklorists is a matter for further research.

The above is of course carefully considered conjecture as all such studies are, but I think it is in the right direction.

I hope it is helpful to you.

Vyvyan Ogma Wyverne /|\