For the studio established by Frank Lloyd Wright, see Taliesin (studio)
Taliesin or Taliessin (c. 534–c.599) is the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose work has survived. His name is associated with the Book of Taliesin, a book of poems written down in the 10th century but which most scholars believed to date in large part from the 6th century. He is believed to have been the chief bard in the courts of at least three British kings of that era. In legend he attained the status "Chief Bard of Britain" and as such would have been responsible for judging poetry competitions among all the royal bards of Britain. A few of the marks awarded for poems are extant in the margins of manuscripts. Taliesin's life was later the subject of 16th century mythological work by Elis Gruffydd, who may have relied on existing oral tradition about him.
Little, beyond what he writes in his own poems, is known about his life. One manuscript says he was the son of Saint Henwg of Llanhennock, 5km north-east of Newport (near Caerleon). He is mentioned with Talhaern Tatguen, Aneirin, Bluchbard, and Cian "Wheat of Song" as one of the four British poets of renown in the "Northern History" section (ch.62) of the Historia Britonum traditionally attributed to Nennius.
The poems ascribed to him indicate that he later became court bard to King Brochfael of Powys around 555, then to his successor Cynan Garwyn, and lastly to King Urien of Rheged. The idea that he was bard to King Arthur is an imaginative product of Victorian poetry, Taliesin being Arthur's bard in Tennyson's Idylls of the King. In any case the historical Taliesin's career can be shown to have fallen in the last half of the 6th century, while historians who argue for Arthur's existence date his victory at Mons Badonicus in the years to either side of AD 500; the Annales Cambriae offers the date of 532 for his death or disappearance in the Battle of Camlann, only a few years earlier than the date of 542 found in the Historia Regum Britanniae.
According to tradition first recorded in the 16th century, Taliesin was the foster-son of Elphin, who gave him the name Taliesin meaning "radiant brow" and who later became King of Ceredigion. The tradition states that he was then raised at his court in Aberdyfi and that at the age of 13, he visited King Maelgwn, Elphin's uncle, and correctly prophesied the manner and imminence of Maelgwn's death.
According to tradition, he was buried near his childhood home in Ceredigion and a village named after him in the 19th century now sits below the hillside at the site of his grave.
Book of Taliesin
The work most associated with him is The Book of Taliesin, which scholars consider to have been written in 10th century Welsh. Since all poetry was transmitted orally in Taliesin's day, a plausible hypothesis is that his poems were first written down four centuries later using the contemporary spellings of that day.
Of the poems in The Book of Taliesin, twelve are addressed to known historical kings such as Cynan Garwyn, king of Powys and Gwallawc of Elmet. Most of the poems, however, are addressed to Urien Rheged, whose kingdom was centered in the region of the Solway Firth on the borders of present-day England and Scotland and stretched east to Catraeth (now Catterick in North Yorkshire) and west to Galloway Some of the events to which the poems refer, such as the Battle of Arderydd (c. 583) are known from other sources. These references lead even conservative historians to consider the poems addressed to Urien Rheged to date from that time period.
The rest of the book comprises poems addressing mythological, religious or shamanistic topics, as well as a few works such as 'Armes Prydein Vawr', the content of which implies that they were by later authors, perhaps contemporary to the 10th century scribe who compiled the Book of Taliesin.
Gruffyd's account of his life
In the mid 16th century, Elis Gruffydd wrote an mythological account of Taliesin which drew from Celtic folklore. Some scholars believe that Gruffydd recorded a tradition that existed before his time.
A witch named Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and an ugly son, Morfran (also called Avagddu). Since Morfran was hideously ugly, she sought to make him wise. Using a magical cauldron, Ceridwen cooked a potion granting wisdom, which had to be cooked for a year and a day. Morda, a blind man, tended the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion, a young boy, stirred the concoction.
The first three drops of liquid from this cauldron gave wisdom; the rest was a fatal poison. Three hot drops spilled onto Gwion's hand as he stirred, burning him. He instinctively put his hand in his mouth, and instantly gained great wisdom and knowlede. The first thought that occurred to him was that Ceridwen would be very angry at him for doing this. Scared, he ran away, but all too soon he heard her fury and the sound of her pursuit.
As Ceridwen chased Gwion, he turned himself into a rabbit. In return, she became a dog. He then became a fish and jumped into a river, and in response, she then turned into an otter. He turned into a bird, and in response she became a hawk. Finally, he turned into a single grain of corn. She became a hen and ate him.
Afterwards Ceridwen became pregnant and knew it was Gwion. She resolved to kill the child, but after he was born, he was so beautiful that she couldn't go through with the deed. Instead, she threw him in the ocean inside a leather bag.
Discovery by Elphin
The baby was found by Elphin, the son of Lord Gwyddno Garanhir of Ceredigion, who found the child while fishing for salmon. He named him Taliesin, meaning "radiant brow." While Elphin carried the baby back to his father ina basket, thinking of what his father would say when he learned that Elphin had caught a baby, but no salmon, the baby began to recite beautiful poetry, saying:
- Fair Elphin, cease your lament!
- Swearing profits no-one.
- It is not evil to hope
- Nor does any man see what supports him,
- Not an empty treasure is the prayer of Cynllo,
- Nor does God break his promise.
- No catch in Gwyddno's weir
- Was ever as good as tonight's.
- "Fair Elphin, dry your cheeks!
- Such sorrow does not become you,
- Although you consider yourself cheated
- Excessive sorrow gains nothing,
- Nor will doubting God's miracles.
- Although I am small, I am skilful.
- From the sea and the mountain,
- From the river's depth
- God gives His gifts to the blessed.
- "Elphin of the generous spirit,
- Cowardly is your purpose,
- You must not grieve so heavily.
- Better are good than evil omens.
- though I am weak and small,
- Spumed with Dylan's wave,
- I shall be better for you
- Than three hundred shares of salmon.
- "Elphin of noble generosity,
- Do not sorrow at your catch.
- Though I am weak on the floor of my basket,
- There are wonders on my tongue.
- "While I am watching over you,
- no great need will overcome you.
- be mindful of the name of the Trinity
- And none shall overcome you."
Amazed Elphin asked how a baby could talk. Again Taliesin replied with poetry, recounting the transformation chase between he and Ceridwen. Finishing, he said:
- "Floating like a boat in its waters,
- I was thrown into a dark bag,
- and on an endless sea, I was set adrift.
- Just as I was suffocating, I had a happy omen,
- and the master of the Heavens brought me to liberty."
At the court of Maelgwn
A few years later, when Taliesin turned thirteen, Elphin was at the court of King Maelgwn, who demanded that Elphin praise him and his court. Elphin refused, claiming Taliesin was a better bard and that his wife a prettier woman than anyone the king had in his court. Although he was not present, Taliesin knew what was happening, because he was a seer, and told Elphin's wife.
Maelgwn's son Rhun went to Elphin's house to seduce his wife and prove Elphin's claims weren't true. Rhun got her drunk, and when she passed out, Rhun tried to take her wedding ring off to prove her unfaithfulness. When the ring wouldn't come off, he cut off her finger instead. When King Maelgwn attempted to show the finger to Elphin, he pointed out that his wife cut her fingernails more often than the owner of the finger. Moreover, the fingernails had bread dough under them, but his wife always had servants knead the dough. Moreover, his wife's ring was loose on her finger, but this one was tight.
Maelgwn then demanded Taliesin come to his court to prove wrong the claim that Taliesin was a better bard than the ones in his court. Taliesin responded with a challenge in which both he and the king's bards were to compose an epic in only twenty minutes. The royal bards failed at the task, but when it came time for Taliesin to recite his, he caused a massive wind to rattle the castle. Frightened, Maelgwn sent for Elphin. Taliesin's next song caused Elphin's chains to detach. Maelgwn challenged the pair to a horse race. Taleisin arrived the next day with an old, weak horse. As each of the king's horses passed him at the very start of the race, Taliesin touched its rump with a twig of holly. When they had all passed, he dropped his hat to the ground, and the king's horses turned back right before crossing the finish line, stopping at the holly twigs Taliesin had laid there, and began to dance. Taliesin's old horse strolled to the finish line and won the race.
Commentary on the traditions
The tradition that Taliesin was the foster-son of Prince Elphin (later King of Ceredigion) and that he was raised at his court in Aberdyfi tradition that Taliesin visited King Maelgwn have not historical substantiation but do not conflict with what little history currently is known about those persons and about that region and period.
The birth myth of Ceridwen chasing Gwion through various forms is sometimes interpreted mystically and allegorically.
- Ford, Patrick K. 1977. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Ford, Patrick K. 1992. Ystoria Taliesin University of Wales Press: Cardiff.
- Ford, Patrick K. 1999. The Celtic Poets: Songs and Tales from Early Ireland and Wales Ford and Bailie: Belmont, Mass.
- Haycock, Marged. 1997. "Taliesin's Questions" Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies 33 (Summer): 19–79.
- Haycock, Marged. 1987. "'Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules': three early medieval poems from the 'Book of Taliesin." Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies 13 (1987): 7–38.
- Haycock, Marged. 1987–88. "Llyfr Taliesin," National Library of Wales Journal 25: 357–86.
- Haycock, Marged. 1983–1984. "Preiddeu Annwn and the Figure of Taliesin" Studia Celtica18/19: 52–78.
- Koch, John and John Carey. 2003.The Celtic Heroic Age 3rd ed. Celtic Studies Publishing: Malden, Mass.
- Matthews, John. 1991. Taliesin: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland Harper Collins: London.
- Williams, J. E. Carwyn. 1987. The Poems of Taliesin Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies: Dublin.
- Taliesin Foundation YahooGroup (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/taliesinfoundation) looks at the relevance of Taliesin and Celtic Tradition in today's Europe