Taliesin – Man and Myth

By H Catherine Watling

The truth behind the icon.  Exploring Taliesin’s identity.

Taliesin is a celebrity amongst bards: famous for 1,500 years.  In Wales he has a high profile, with an arts centre, journal, university society and street named after him.  Outside Wales, I discovered that few people know of him.

The roots of his craft lie in the remote past, long before the written word, and over recent centuries poetry’s popularity has waxed and waned.  Byron, for example, had a fanatical following, reminiscent of a rock star, and the beat poets were heroes of the counterculture.  But poetry has often been regarded as pretentious, inaccessible or the province of dreamers.  Currently, there is a surge of interest, especially in performance poetry.  With spoken word stages at festivals, poetry slams, and the cross-over with music, it is embraced as exciting and relevant.

In early oral cultures bards were both entertainers and carriers of tribal memory and wisdom.  Their minds were the libraries, the digital storage of their day.  As performers they inspired the community in an age when life was short and brutal, their words bringing escapism, and immortal fame for those whose deeds they recounted.  Their power was so great it was regarded as magical, and the bard was honoured even above kings.

However, the names of very few ancient bards have come down to us.  So why was Taliesin remembered?  He must have been special, uniquely gifted.

When I started thinking about writing a historical novel, he stepped out of the mist of ages and my relationship with him began.  Fascinated by his work and legend, I wanted to bring him to wider attention, and to explore who this man was.

Beyond the fantastical ‘Hanes Taliesin’ (‘Story of Taliesin’) found in Lady Charlotte Guest’s translation of the ‘Mabinogion’, and a collection of mysterious poems attributed to the bard, there exists a historical figure who flourished in the sixth century, whose eulogies, or praise poems, still survive.

My fictionalized character is evoked from these sources.  Whilst writing, there were times when I thought ‘so that is what really happened’ as scenes appeared to my inner eye like news footage of the Dark Ages.  It felt strange as I snapped back to reality, reminding myself that the ‘insight’ was merely imagination.

‘Radiant Brow – the Epic of Taliesin’ tells the tale of Taliesin’s quest for identity as he rises in prestige to become Primary Chief Bard of Britain.  Abandoned by his natural mother and taken in by the royal clan of Gwynedd, throughout his life he remains an outsider: both revered and alienated.  At first he is driven by a need to prove himself, but guided by his muse, the goddess Ceridwen, he directs his powers to the cause of his people as they fight Anglo-Saxon encroachment.  Increasingly, this dedication brings conflict, compromising his personal relationships and demanding a degree of sacrifice which almost destroys him.

In the novel, his struggle shows the emotional weight of holding great power whilst haunted by an underlying insecurity, and the price that he must pay to follow his destiny.

Historically, Taliesin is mentioned in Nennius’ ‘Historia Brittonum’ as being renowned at the same time as the bards Talhaearn Tad Awen, Aneirin, Bluchbard and Cian.  but most of what is known about him has its source in his own works.  These would originally have been told orally from generation to generation, until they were written down by a cleric in the eleventh century.  They are now contained in the late thirteenth century manuscript known as ‘The Book of Taliesin’.

Reading them, although not in their original form, brought a sense of connection through the centuries, an immediacy which made me feel that I was dealing with a living, breathing person.  I built scenes around Taliesin’s graphic description of historical battles and drew on his depiction of a warrior elite.

As bard to several chieftains, he was probably one of the first to compose in Cymric, which had evolved from the more ancient Brythonic language.  Most significant of his royal patrons was Urien of Rheged (Cumbria), though Taliesin also composed for his son Owain, King Cynan Garwyn of Powys and Gwallawg, Lord of Elmet (the area around Leeds).

Despite dedicating much of his work to Urien, Taliesin himself did not come from Rheged, as he says in ‘Rheged Arise’ ‘……even though I am not one of yours’, and it is possible that his roots lay in Powys.  Before travelling north, he was bard to Cynan Garwyn and praises the generosity of this patron, who showered him with gifts,

 

‘a hundred steeds with silver trappings,

a hundred purple robes of equal span,

a hundred armbands into my lap…..’ 1

 

Both Urien Rheged and his son Owain were prominent in the British struggle, strengthened by the heroic verse of their bard. Describing the battle of Argoed Llwyfain, in which Urien defeated the Angles of Bernicia, Taliesin’s words are direct and powerful,

 

‘……..because of warriors

crows got red

and men rushed

with their ageing lord.’ 1

 

When Taliesin exhorts the warriors to return to their former glory after an unsuccessful campaign, he comes closest to his other, mythical, persona.  Like the ancient druids, who could reputedly maim or cure with the power of their words, he declares,

 

‘I know that a war is being mooted

and the amount I say

will be annihilated.’ 1

 

Alongside the twelve eulogies, which literary scholars agree are by the historical bard, ‘The Book of Taliesin’ contains a number of other poems involving shamanism, mythological reference and magic, which have inspired the visionary episodes in ‘Radiant Brow’.  These poems are almost certainly not composed by Taliesin the eulogist.  Instead, they are the product of an oral tradition spanning centuries but not recorded in written form until Medieval times, and they may even preserve the remains of an ancient belief system.  They have been linked with the bard to give them credibility by later followers of the tradition, who were seeking to preserve it.

The beginning of my novel and the initiatory sequences re-imagine episodes from the ‘Hanes Taliesin’, which was first written down in the sixteenth century by a bard names Llewellyn Sion.  It was on this that Lady Charlotte Guest based her translation, assisted by the Rev. John Jones, and referring to an earlier translation by Dr Owen Pughe.

The tale tells how a sorceress named Ceridwen (the clerics’ way of describing a pagan goddess) employs a boy named Gwion Bach to stir the cauldron in which she is brewing an elixir of inspiration for her son Afagddu, to grant him wisdom to compensate for his extreme ugliness.  When a drop of the boiling liquid splashes onto Gwion’s finger he instinctively puts it in his mouth, gaining the gift intended for Afagddu.  A shape-shifting sequence follows, as the enraged Ceridwen pursues Gwion, until, taking the form of a grain of wheat, he is consumed by the goddess in the form of a black hen.  Nine months later, she gives birth to a beautiful infant, a Mabon archetype or child of light, who shines that light into the world, and whose symbolic birth, therefore, occurs at the start of the Celtic summer.

Though Ceridwen intends to kill him, seeing his beauty she cannot bring herself to carry out the deed, and instead sets him adrift in a leather bag.  When it becomes trapped in the salmon weir belonging to Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyddno’s son Elffin, regarded as a fool and a failure, saves the boy’s life.

To Elffin’s surprise the child immediately begins to compose poetry, promising that his rescuer’s luck will change.

 

‘……weak and small as I am,

on the foaming beach of the ocean,

in the day of trouble, I shall be

of more service to thee than three hundred salmon….’ 2

 

Taliesin then tells of his own beginnings,

 

‘First, I have been formed a comely person,

in the court of Ceridwen I have done penance…….’ 2

 

and goes on to recount many past transformations.

There are two possible ways to interpret the shape-shifting sequence, and its variations that occur in several poems from ‘The Book of Taliesin’.  The first, that it represents a series of incarnations, based on the druidic belief that each soul inhabits both animal and human forms on its spiritual evolution.  The second, that it describes initiation into the bardic mysteries, during which the shaman-bard enters a state of trance, experiencing direct identification with all aspects of existence.  The theme of pursuit recalls the testing of the initiate by the initiator, pushing him to ever deeper levels of knowledge.

Through Ceridwen, goddess of transformation, the initiate dies to his former self and is re-born a bard.  Even as late as Medieval times, bards who aspired to the Chair of Song acknowledged Ceridwen as their mentor, and symbolically drank the elixir of inspiration from her cauldron – the prototype of the Arthurian Grail.

The cauldron, which Taliesin encounters during trance in my novel, appears frequently in his myth and poetry.  His name is mentioned in the second branch of the ‘Mabinogion’ – ‘Branwen Daughter of Llyr’ – which deals with a cauldron of rebirth, while one of the most famous poems attributed to him, ‘Preiddeu Annwn’, contains the lines,

 

‘The first word from the cauldron, when was it spoken?

By the breath of nine damsels gently warmed.

Is it not the cauldron of the Chief of Annwn…..’ 3

 

With their breath, the nine muses infuse the vessel with the flowing spirit of inspiration, or Awen.  The initiatory quest to achieve this gift is paralleled by the Underworld journey described in ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ – a journey from which only seven returned.

That Taliesin was held in high regard is clear from his list of royal patrons, and the twelve eulogies which survive are filled with vitality and vivid detail.  How exciting it would be to access the whole of his creative output, lost over the centuries.  Instead, we have the esoteric poems written in his name, and the ‘Hanes Taliesin’, which have added to his aura of mystery.  As man and myth combined, he represents the archetypal bard and the timeless power of poetry, as potent today as it was when he performed.

 

Sources for quotes:

1. ‘Taliesin Poems’, trans. Meirion Pennar, Llanerch, 1988

2. ‘Mabinogion Legends’, trans. Charlotte Guest, Llanerch, 1992

3. ‘Taliesin or the Bards and Druids of Britain’, D W Nash, Kessinger Publishing