Taliesin and the Brythonic Gods

Gwydion

 

Some have supposed that Taliesin was a god whose identity – and perhaps name – became confused with the historical bard of the 6th century Brythonic warlord Urien of Rheged.[i]  Be that as it may, it is certainly the case that many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin were written by later awenyddion who adopted his mantle and sought to develop his mythos. So his place among the gods, or his relation to them, became less clear as he gained legendary significance as a bard/awenydd.  In their later literary representation, the gods themselves, and their relationships to each other, became interlaced as the weavers of song wove their stories into more complex narratives. What follows is an attempt to identify a few threads stitched into the later medieval tapestry.

In the poem known as ‘Cad Goddeu’ (Battle of the Trees) in The Book of Taliesin, Gwydion conjures a host of trees to assist in the battle. The poem also asserts that Taliesin himself was created out of plants, earth and ‘water from the ninth wave’ by Math and Gwydion, in much the same way they created Blodeuedd in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi. No reason is given for the battle in the ‘Cad Goddeu’ poem itself, but No. 84 of Trioedd Ynys Prydein says that it was fought for ‘a bitch, a roebuck and a lapwing’. The Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi contains other examples of Gwydion’s magical abilities, including an episode where he travels from North to South Wales to trick Pryderi into giving him some pigs that were a gift from the Otherworld domain of Annwn. Gwydion later kills Pryderi when they engage in man-to-man combat as part of the war which breaks out as a result of Gwydion’s trickery. But there might be an older version of this story in which Gwydion’s brother Amaethon actually raids Annwn itself, not for pigs but for a white roebuck and a young hound. The story is contained in the Peniarth manuscripts (No. 98B) and records two englyn verses with some explanatory prose. It is thought that the englyns must be older than the prose which refers to the ‘Cad Goddeu’ by an alternative name of ‘Cad Achren’. It says that :

“This battle took place because of a white roe deer and a young hound which came from Annwn. They were taken by Amaethon fab Dôn . Because of this Arawn, King of Annwn, attacked Amaethon.” [ii]

The text goes on to say that there was a person on either side of the battle whose name was not known but if guessed it would ensure that the battle would be won by the side that guessed correctly. On one side this person was a woman called Achren. On the other a man called Brân. It is then said that Gwydion sang two englyns:

[Like this]

Steady are my horse’s hooves as I spur him on
The alder sprigs held high on the left
Brân is your name, of the shining crest.

Or like this:

Steady are my horse’s hooves on the day of battle
The alder sprigs held high in your hand
Brân in your coat of mail with [alder] sprigs on it
The good Amaethon won this battle. [ii]

This must mean that Brân was with Arawn and the woman Achren was with Amaethon. If this is the Bendigeidfran of the Second Branch of The Mabinogi then his presence with the Otherworld troops might go some way to explaining his ‘blessed’ appellation and the description of him as a giant. The ascription to him of alder sprigs fits the ‘Cad Goddeu’ where alder is said to be in the vanguard of the battle which is also a characteristic of Brân in The Mabinogi. The name-guessing game is a well-established folklore motif, most well-known in the story of Rumpelstiltskin as given by the Brothers Grimm, though I know of no other example of it in Brythonic lore. The ‘Cad Achren’ story suggests that the conflict between Gwydion and Pryderi in The Mabinogi, which takes place entirely between North and South Wales, is a re-telling of an earlier tale of a conflict between the Children of Dôn and Arawn in Annwn. Amaethon does not appear with his siblings in The Mabinogi tale so a story which includes him does suggest an earlier provenance.

Instead of pigs this story cites a white roebuck and a young hound as the cause of the battle, two of the three items cited in the Triad as the cause of the ‘Cad Goddeu’. It would be helpful to know the significance of these animals in this case but the story as it has survived appears to be an incomplete fragment preserved only to (partly) explain the verses. Amaethon is usually identified as a god of agriculture and agricultural gods do sometimes become gods of war.[iii] Gwydion is clearly portrayed as a magical adept and trickster, consonant with his appearance in The Mabinogi. Although the suggestion is that Amaethon stole the deer and hound from Arawn, this may not be a raid on Annwn from Thisworld, but a war between different groups of deities. If so the war could be within Annwn itself as with the conflict between Arawn and so Pryderi and Hafgan in the First Branch of The Mabinogi, or possibly between different otherworlds. In one of the ‘conversation’ poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen, Gwyn ap Nudd speaks of his role as a harvester of souls not just in Thisworld but in Otherworld battles too [see HERE ~>]. In another of these conversation poems Taliesin refuses the invitation of Ugnach (a probable synonym for Gwyn ap Nudd –[ see HERE~>]) and instead says he is going to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion. ‘Caer Gwydion’ or ‘Caer Aranrhod’ (the fort of Gwydion’s sister) are names for the Milky Way. Might they also indicate an alternative Otherworld and is this where Taliesin is heading?

If we are dealing with two opposing group of deities , one linked to Annwn and led by Arawn (another probable synonym for Gwyn ap Nudd) and also including Pryderi, Brân and indeed the other chief characters of Branches 1-3 of The Mabinogi, opposed to the family of Dôn, some of whom feature in the Fourth Branch but also include Amaethon and Gofannon, then where does Taliesin fit? The author or redactor of the ‘Cad Goddeu’ poem in The Book of Taliesin (probably the 12th century awenydd Prydydd y Moch [iv]), wearing the mantle of Taliesin, clearly wants to place him as a significant presence in the battle, and to suggest a divine origin for the bard, shaped by the magic of Math and Gwydion and brought into being by the Divine mother Modron. Taliesin is a presence in other conflicts with Annwn, notably joining Arthur’s raid in the ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ poem. In ‘Cad Achren’ he appears to be on the same side as Amaethon and Gwydion if this battle is the same as the ‘Cad Goddeu’ as the prose attached to the englyns sung by Gwydion asserts. But he is said elsewhere to keep company with Brân and Pryderi. [v]. When he joins Arthur’s raid on Annwn he might have a purpose other than the desire for loot as I have intuited [HERE~>]. He is a shape-shifter, a trickster and an all-round slippery customer who makes it hard for us to pin him down. He seems closest in nature to Gwydion who is himself a shape-shifter, a master story-teller and chanter of verse for magical purposes. It may be they both originate in a trickster deity linked to the source of awen who may have been tricksy in causing conflict between the gods too.


References

[i] Ifor Williams Chwedl Taliesin (O’Donnell Lecture 1955-6)
[ii]My translation from the text as given by Ian Hughes in the introduction to his edition of Bendigeiduran Uab Llyr (Aberystwyth, 2017) . What follows is based both on his discussion in Welsh (p. xxvii), and that of Rachel Bromwich in English in Trioedd Ynys Prydein (p.p. 218-19).
[iii] The most well-known example is Mars who protected agriculture as well as being a god of war.
[iv] As suggested by Marged Haycock : Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin pp. 27-30
[v] e.g in The Second Branch of The Mabinogi where he is one of the seven who returned with Bendigeidfran from Ireland and sojourned with the head of Brân in Gwales.

The Conversation Between Taliesin and Ugnach

 

blackbookofcarma00evanuoft_0149
The Opening of the poem inThe Black Book of Carmarthen from the facsimile of Gwenogvryn Evans

One of the most intriguing of the ‘conversation’ poems in early Welsh is that between Taliesin and Ugnach. Two separate manuscripts of the poem have survived, one in The Black Book of Carmarthen and another in a separate manuscript also kept in The National Library of Wales. The poem has been interpreted in a number of ways and a few ambiguous words in one of its englyns have given rise to much speculation about the context for the poem. I will discuss these matters after giving my translation.  I should make it clear here that I read it as a straight-forward encounter with an Otherworld character whose identity I will also suggest below. A remarkable feature of the poem, if it is viewed in this way, is that Taliesin is reluctant to accept the invitation offered to him, given the apparently fearless forays into the Otherworld which are a feature of some of the poems attributed to him.

Who is Ugnach that Taliesin should be so deferential to him and yet refuse his offer of hospitality? In the poem he says that he is ‘Ugnach, Son of Mydno’ but Taliesin claims not to know him and there are no references to this character elsewhere unless we can equate him with the ‘Mugnach’ mentioned in the Triads as the father of Fflur who is beloved of Caswallawn. There he is named with the additional appellation ‘Gorr’ which is usually presumed to be an abbreviation for ‘Corrach’ (dwarf) but it might also be a scribal mistake or variant of ‘cawr’ (giant). Names ending in ‘-ach’ tend to signify supernatural characters such as ‘Wrnach’, a giant and Diwrnach, the Irish owner of a magical cauldron, both of whom feature in Culhwch and Olwen. Attaching the suffix -‘ach’ to the Welsh word ‘gwraig’ (woman) gives ‘gwrach’ (witch). So it might be that the name’s significance is as much in its suffix as in any genealogy.

Following the conventional exchange when two horsemen meet each other, Ugnach is immediately insistent that Taliesin should accept his hospitality – ‘You cannot refuse’ – but Taliesin, as politely as possible, does refuse. He says he is on his way to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion (presumably Dinas Dinlleu in Gwynedd, a location which is the setting for part of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi ?) When asked where he is coming from he says ‘Caer Seon’, a place that has a number of possible locations.

Why will Taliesin not go with Ugnach? It may be that he really is in a hurry, but there is a certain tension in the exchange between them that suggests an evasiveness on Taliesin’s part and an insistent lure on the part of Ugnach. It has something of the atmosphere of the exchanges between the boy and the crone or ‘false knight’ in the folk ballad ‘The False Knight on the Road’ and its variants. Here, though, Taliesin does not try to cleverly outwit Ugnach but, in accordance with convention, to politely but firmly decline his offer. Does Taliesin fear the consequences of going with Ugnach, perhaps thinking he may never return? This suggests a skilled mediator with Otherworld beings who is wary of what this one wants with him.

The poem is written in the form of a series of three-line englyns with each of the three lines featuring end-rhyme, something not achievable in the translation but which, along with the syllabic requirements of the englyn form, may have a bearing on the particular choice of words and therefore may be a factor in the issues discussed below.

TALIESIN:

Horseman who rides to the fortress
With white hounds and great horns
I see you but I do not know you.

UGNACH:

Horseman who rides to the estuary
On a steed strong and steadfast
Come with me, you cannot refuse.

TALIESIN:

I cannot go there now
I have no time to delay
Blessings go with you from above and below.

UGNACH:

Warrior who is not seen here often
With the look of one who is fortunate
Where do you go and from where do you come?

TALIESIN:

I come from Caer Seon,
From contesting with strangers;
I go to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion.

UGNACH:

Come with me to my fortress
For shining mead
And fine gold for your spear-rest.

TALIESIN:

I do not know you bold warrior
Who promises mead and a bed,
Your speech honeyed and fair.

UGNACH:

Come to my domain
For wine flowing freely.
Ugnach am I, named son of Mydno.

TALIESIN:

Ugnach, blessings to your Gorsedd,
May you have favour and honour.
Taliesin am I and I’ll acknowledge your feast.

UGNACH:

Taliesin, greatest of men,
Most accomplished in bardic contest,
Stay with me until Wednesday.

TALIESIN:

Ugnach, most richly endowed,
Grace to your great land;
No censure on me that I cannot stay.

§

On the face of it this seems to be an encounter with a character from the Otherworld, a character who bears a striking resemblance to Gwyn ap Nudd with his pack of white hounds. This is how I read it so this has had a bearing on how I have translated it. But other contexts have been argued for, mainly centring on the interpretation of the fifth englyn. There Taliesin says he comes from ‘Caer Seon’ where, in the second line of the englyn, he says he has been ‘ymlit ac itewon’. On the face of it these words seem to mean ‘fighting (or disputing) with jews’. Taking the word ‘itewon’ to be the earliest example of the modern Welsh word ‘iddewon’ (jews) would certainly give such a meaning for the line. This has led to one interpretation of the poem as an account of Taliesin returning from the Crusades, making ‘Caer Seon’ Jerusalem and ‘jews’ a generic term for those being attacked there [1]. A much more likely word, in that case, would be ‘saracens’ but there are several examples in medieval literature in English as well as Welsh of such words being mixed up or having a general application to refer to ‘others’. Elsewhere, saracens were even conflated with saxons, and the precise identity of peoples from other cultures would not necessarily be distinguished and the word for one could serve as the word for others, particularly if they were all ‘enemies’ [2] For this reason I have preferred to translate ‘itewon’ (which end-rhymes with ‘seon’ and ‘gwidion’) as ‘strangers’. There is, of course, no need to opt for the ‘crusade’ theory even if ‘itewon’ is retained as ‘jews’. There are possible locations for ‘Caer Seon’ on the island of Anglesey and near Conwy on the coast of North Wales. Taliesin could have been engaging in theological disputes or bardic contests (rather than fighting) with jews in either of these places, though it seems unlikely. Or he could have been coming from Arthur’s court at Caerleon, where such a contest is a little more possible.

Some scholars have suggested that ‘itewon’ might be a mistake for ‘cerddorion’, and that Taliesin was therefore engaging in expected bardic contests with other poets, especially if Caer Seon is taken to be a court of Maelgwn Gwynedd at Deganwy near Conwy. Similarly ‘itewon’ has been taken as a developed form of the place name ‘Iudeu’ , thought to be on the Firth of Forth, which would mean that Taliesin had journeyed from the Old North, possibly to North Wales or possibly to another destination in the Old North. But all of this is a distraction from the encounter with Ugnach. It seems clear that Taliesin is being invited to an Otherworld caer and that he refuses the invitation. If we may take Ugnach to be Gwyn ap Nudd two possibilities may be considered. One is that Taliesin’s boastful expeditions to the Otherworld, such as that described in Preiddeu Annwn, are conducted as raids either for treasure or for poetic inspiration. Here he is invited to visit as a guest, or perhaps is being lured there to account for himself. Clearly he is not prepared to go on these terms. The other possibility, suggested by at least one scholar [3] is that he is dead and that Ugnach is bidding him come to the ‘great land’ as he acknowledges it, and that he is either not yet ready to go, or he is going elsewhere. If so Ugnach may well be Gwyn ap Nudd, in another guise. The fact that Taliesin says he journeys to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion has been seen as a possible reference to the Milky Way (Caer Gwydion), that is, he has his sights on a higher destination. The possibility that this would mean ‘Heaven’ in a christian sense, or an alternative Otherworld location of which Gwydion is the ruler – imponderable though that may be – is also worth pondering.

References

Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin ed. A O H Jarman (Cardiff, 1982)

‘Rhai Cerddi Ymddidan’ Brinley F. Roberts in Astudiaethau ar Y Hengerdd ed. Rachel Bromwich & R. Brinley Jones (Cardiff 1978)

Alexander Falileyev ‘Why Jews? Why Caer Seon? Towards Interpretations of Ymddidan Taliesin ac Ugnach’ in Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies No. 64 Winter 2012

[1] By Graham Isaac in an article discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).
[2] As suggested by Marged Haycock in her notes to the poem ‘Kadeir TeŸrnon’ Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin (CMCS, 2007) p.310
[3] Also proposed by Graham Isaac and discussed by Alexander Falileyev (see above).

Merlin, Taliesin and Maponos

220px-Moreau,_Gustave_-_Hésiode_et_la_Muse_-_1891

 

As I am Merlin
And again Taliesin
Eternal my singing
My prophecies unending.

So runs the lines of part of the ‘conversation’ (Ymddiddan) between Merlin and Taliesin in The Black Book of Carmarthen. In what sense can two people speaking to each other be thought of as the same person? The lines have been translated as though they mean ‘I Merlin, and Taliesin before me’. There is, perhaps, room for ambiguity in ‘Can ys mi myrtin guydi taliessin’ and so expanding the lines to make sense of them could, indeed, yield that translation. A note to this line in Jarman’s edition of the Black Book indicates that the reading of ‘guydi’ (modern Welsh ‘wedi’ = ‘after’) is also construed as ‘before’, or ‘in the guise of’ in medieval Welsh.  Consider too the words of Elis Gruffydd from his 16th century Chronicle of the Ages:

Some people hold the opinion and maintain firmly that Merlin was a spirit in human form, who was in that shape from the time of Vortigern until the beginning of King Athur’s time when he disappeared. After that, this spirit appeared again in the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd at which time he is called Taliesin, who is said to be alive yet in a place called Caer Sidia. Thence he appeared a third time in the days of Merfyn Frych son of Esyllt, whose son he was said to be, and in this period he was called Merlin the Mad. From that day to this, he said to be resting in Caer Sidia, whence certain people believe firmly he will rise up once again before doomsday.

(Trans Patrick K Ford. Viator 7)

The idea that Merlin and Taliesin were the same person in different guises was common enough for Elis Gruffydd to report it. Patrick Ford, discussing of the Taliesin legend in the Introduction to his Ystoria Taliesin, says that the two prophets are “aliases of a single poetic spirit” and hence the same figure appears in Irish texts such as the Senchan Torpeist bard identified as “the Spirit of Poetry“.

But can we identify that “spirit” as a god? Consider this from the discussion of the evolution of the Taliesin legend from Ifor Williams:

Stage 1
Taliesin was one of the old gods of the Welsh mythological tradition who developed a reputation as a bard or as an inspirer of the bardic arts.

Stage 2
Taliesin becomes a legendary bard (9th-10th c)

Stage 3
The poems, already becoming Christianised in Stage 2, become assimilated to the Christian tradition and lose much of their ‘druidic’ character though retaining an aura of this as part of the bardic ethos.

Chwedl Taliesin (O’Donnell Lecture 1955-6)

This legend  developed separately from the poems written to Urien in the sixth century by the historical Taliesin, though they were later confused particularly when bards began to adopt the persona of Taliesin as an inspired awenydd.

So if he was (is) a god, which one? Perhaps the one who entered the shepherd boy in Henry Vaughan’s account of bardic possession in his letter to John Aubrey. If the shepherd lad is a type of the Divine Child and if the ‘ghillie’ of the Irish tale of Senchan Torpeist can also be so construed, is this an appearance, variously of Mabon (<Maponos) or Aengus Og (Mac ind Oc) both epithets of the Divine Child? Or is it, rather, that when the inspiration is breathed into them they become the god that breathes it. The source of the Awen, the divine breeze that blows through the world.

 

kandinsky-lyre

Delightful to the Dragon-Lord …

After the final lines of ‘Mydwyf Merweryd’ (‘I am the Pulse …’) from The Book of Taliesin


D
elightful to the dragon-lord

are songs from Gwion’s river
Flowing through the halls,
the scent of fair weather,
A horn full of mead
fragrant with honey and clover,
Druids skilled in Awen
– nothing pleases him better!

So the bard instructs the chieftain as to what is valuable and what, therefore, should please him: Gwion’s River (the flow of inspired song), fine weather, fragrant mead and the inspired utterances of his druids.

The Spirit of Poetry and the Gods

From the manuscript of Cormac's Glossary
From the manuscript of Cormac’s Glossary


Turning from the Brythonic to the Goidelic, the analogue to the awenydd would be the fili. Such analogues are always in need of qualification and never exact. The Welsh term ‘bard’ covers some aspects of ‘awenydd’ in medieval usage, but is also a more general term that can simply be translated as ‘poet’. So too ‘fili‘. But if the medieval Welsh bards can be seen as descendants of the druids in terms of their function, the process of transition and the change in emphasis of their role is by no means clear and in some senses involves a considerable displacement of context and status. This to some extent explains the need to create a protean identity for the bard as sage and prophet such as was embodied in the figure of Taliesin as indicated in other posts here.

It may seem that in Ireland the process of transition from druid to fili is clearer and the overlap in function between the two better documented. But most scholars are of the opinion that the process, as seen through christian eyes and then re-mythologised in literature and commentary, makes it very difficult to see through the layers of interpretation to an authentic picture of the pagan past. Such early texts as the ‘Cauldron of Poesy’ and the references to the role of the fili in Cormac’s Glossary suggest that they practised visionary and prophetic arts in much the same way as the awenyddion as recorded by Gerald of Wales.

Cormac’s Glossary identifies three essential attributes of a fili:

(a) teinm laedo (illumination of song) which is the mastery of the craft, the realisation of the vision or, possibly simply the knowledge required to be a fili.
(b) imbas forosnai (the manifestation which enlightens) which is inspiration, visionary abilities, divination and prophecy such as attributed to the awenyddion in Wales.
(c) dichetal di chennaib (chanting or incantation) involved with the ability to give voice eloquently and fluently to what is divined. Later simply presentational skill.

The Glossary asserts that St Patrick abolished two of these but left the third in the repertoire of the fili because as it did not involve offerings to demons or the adoption of divine power. Such ascriptions of the attributes of the fili and the objections to them from christian orthodoxy are repeated with variations throughout the medieval period. The effect is both to define a magical and a prophetic practice and at the same time to assert that it has been superseded by the rites of the church. It both describes what is forbidden and salaciously sensationalises it for added effect. In Wales the role was typically shifted onto a poetic alter-ego such as Taliesin. In Ireland it was also projected back onto the mythological hero Finn who was also credited with acquiring the three attributes of the fili after sucking his thumb when cooking the salmon of divine knowledge for his mentor, much as Gwion did with Ceridwen’s brew before he was transformed into Taliesin.

When gods become heroes, when legendary bards become prophets, when druids becomes bards or fili, all sorts of things get lost, mixed up or added in to the new identities. The parallel process of fictional portrayal and clerical excoriation also adds layers of complexity. Consider how things were closer to the end of pagan culture in the Roman Empire. Following the adoption of christianity by the emperor Constantine in 306, continued by his successor Constantius, the emperor Julian attempted to reinstate paganism. Worship of the old gods had not ceased, especially in the west, but the empire was now ruled from Constantinople in the east where christianity had become established. The effect of withdrawal of state support for the temples meant that observations had become lax and Julian, in his exhortations to the temple priests, is on record of requiring them to promote the worship of the gods rather than acting as agents for curses commissioned by individuals. Already, then, the priests of paganism were being denigrated and seen as agents of the dark arts. It is easy to see how, with the reintroduction of official christianity and the eventual suppression of paganism, this limited (but always prominent) aspect of roman paganism became the chief attributes of what were regarded as its remnant practitioners.
Later christian commentators like Gerald and the author of Cormac’s Glossary may never have actually encountered these practices. But they were already the legendary attributes of druids and described as received wisdom rather than from experience. Bards who wished to adopt the aura of such powers as part of their poetic personas, or those who re-told the exploits of Finn and Taliesin out of the remnant mythologies, could recreate the lives of the gods, heroes, sages and otherworld inhabitants either as hero tales, legendary history or in the personas of prophets, bardic oracles and inspired poets and even, in another entry in Cormac’s Glossary, as the embodiment of the Spirit of Poetry.

So do the gods live, transform and re-create themselves in our stories. Do we tell them or do they tell them through our story-telling art which is their gift to us? Whatever is the case it is clear that, however much other mythologised figures such as Patrick might forbid, banish, abolish or attempt to restrict such elements of the visionary arts, it was never effective even in his judgement of it.

MYRDDIN becomes MERLIN


Everyone knows who Merlin is – or do they?

For many the stories about a wizard who aids King Arthur are an integral part of the Arthurian Romance tradition. But trace that tradition back far enough and both Arthur and Merlin have separate existences unrelated to each other. The two were brought together by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1136). Geoffrey had previously published a series of Prophecies of Merlin and included these in his ‘History’. Some years later he wrote a long verse ‘Life of Merlin’ which draws upon pre-existing Welsh legendary material about a character called Myrddin who lived as a wild man in the Caledonian Forest. Gerald of Wales, writing later in the twelfth century, speaks explicitly of two Merlins: Merlin Ambrosius and Merlin Silvestris. While he is likely to have drawn these from the work of Geoffrey he may also have seen other material and claimed he had his own ancient book of the prophecies of Merlin, though he never published these.

Geoffrey based the Merlin of his ‘History’ on a character called Ambrosius mentioned by Nennius in the ninth century and attached him to the stories about King Arthur. He may not have become fully familiar with the earlier Welsh legendary material about ‘Myrddin Wyllt’ until after writing his ‘History’ and there is no mention of Arthur in his later ‘Life of Merlin’ which is based on the earlier material in Welsh, some of which has survived. This Merlin, like Taliesin, was regarded as a prophet and had a number of verses attached to his name over an extended period of time. The earliest ones, probably from the ninth or tenth centuries rather than the sixth century when he was supposed to have lived, are contained in a series called the ‘Afallenau’ because they are addressed to an apple tree which seems to afford him some sort of protection and prevent others finding him:


In this glade a sweet apple tree

From Rhydderch’s men hides me

Though many are there to see.

(Awallen peren atif in llanerch/y hanger tae hargel rac riev Ryderch/amsaethir in y bon. maon yn y chilch.)

He was living in the woods as a wild man following the Battle of Arfderydd where Gwenddolau was defeated by Rhydderch Hael. This battle is an historically attested event and is thought to have taken place at Arthuret near to the border between England and Scotland in the year 573. It is likely that the legendary ‘wild man’ stories (which have parallels in the Scottish tale of Lailoken and the Irish tale of Suibhne Geilt) became attached to the story about a survivor from the Battle of Arfderydd. There are references in the ‘Afallenau’ to Merlin having the company of a “fair, wanton maiden” ( bun wen warius) in his early days in the forest but she has left him by the time the verses are written. There is also a dialogue between Merlin and his sister Gwendydd whose son Merlin has slain in the battle and this is given as a reason for the madness that made him flee to the forest.

Armes Prydein (‘Prophecies of Britain’) in The Book of Taliesin contains the phrase “Merlin predicts …” which appears as a parallel to “Awen predicts …” elsewhere in the poem. Also attributed to Merlin is a ‘conversation poem’ (Ymdiddan) between himself and Taliesin. And so he becomes one of the ‘Cynfeirdd’ (earliest poets writing in Welsh) located in the area known later in Wales as ‘The Old North’, and like Taliesin a bard with prophetic powers. Once his legend was established in Wales it also became associated with Carmarthen because his name seems to be contained in the Welsh form ‘Caerfyrddin’, though this actually originates in Moridunon which would naturally have developed into ‘Mer-ddin’ (Sea Fort) and the tautology ‘Caer’ would have been added when it was thought of as ‘Merlin’s Town’. This is compounded by the fact that the verses of Myrddin are recorded in the manuscript of The Black Book of Carmarthen and therefore seeming to record a local tradition. At the same time, Geoffrey’s composite Merlin was gaining fame across Europe as the wizard behind the throne of King Arthur and gaining further accretions as it did so. He has been reinterpreted in our own day among other things as, e.g., Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, and reconstructed by the writer Nikolai Tolstoy, as a remnant druid and priest of Lugh surviving in the Celtic kingdoms of the North. He still has the power to conjure such images as a figure who answers the call to something embedded deep in psychic space: the magician, the wise man, the hermit removed from but integral to our cultural life.

*


History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, various editions)

Life of Merlin (Vita Merlini) by Geoffrey of Monmouth (translated by Richard Barber in Myths and Legends of the British Isles, Folio Society 1998) ; also JJ Perry (Forgotten Books, 2008)

Journey Through Wales and Description of Wales by Gerald of Wales (translated by Lewis Thorpe, Penguin Books, various editions)

‘Early Stages in the Development of the Merlin Legend’ by A.O.H. Jarman in Astudiaethau ar yr Hengerdd (ed. Rachel Bromwich a Brinley Jones, Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1978)

Trioedd Ynys Prydain ed Rachel Bromwich (University of Wales Press, various editions) also contains useful discussion and quotations.

The poems attributed to Myrddin are contained in the manuscripts of The Black Book of Carmarthen and some are anthologised though these are hard to find in translation (the translation above is mine). A good source of extracts is the edition with translations by Meirion Pennar (Llanerch, 1989)

Thomas the Rhymer

Rhiannon---1


According to the legend Thomas was carried off by the Queen of Faery one day as he sat under the ‘Eildon Tree’ in the Tweed Valley in Scotland. The most well-known version of the story is the Ballad which tells briefly of his being carried off by the Queen on a white horse and told that they are taking neither the road to Heaven nor the road to Hell but a third way which leads “over the ferny brae” to “fair Elfland”. When he returns he has a tongue that can never tell a lie and the gift of poetic speech. The text of the Ballad is on another menu on this site HERE->.

Thomas of Erceldoune was a real person who lived in the Tweed Valley in the thirteenth century and had a reputation as a prophet and a versifier. A much longer version of the story about him is contained in a verse romance  in a fifteenth century manuscript which describes the Queen (there called the Lady) in some detail which has a marked resemblance to the description of Rhiannon in the medieval Welsh tales collected as The Mabinogion. This much more extensive account of the story is followed by a series of prophecies relating to the conflicts between England and Scotland. A detailed comparison of the different versions of the story and their sources can be found HERE->.

Both versions contain initiatory elements involving travel underground, through water and even through blood to get to the Otherworld. Like other legendary poets such as Taliesin, Thomas has the power of prophecy as well as poetic inspiration. Other stories about him in Scottish folklore (e.g. THIS ONE->) portray him as a person able to cross the borders between this world and the Otherworld and as acting as an agent for the faërie folk.

In common with other  stories of legendary bards Thomas’s legend has the elements of identity with a real person or authorial presence which develops into something more than the original identity and becomes the definitive type of the inspired poet, prophet or visionary crossing the boundaries between the worlds.  Other elements within the folklore tradition are gathered in an enlarged story about an awenydd, an initiate of the mysteries or the mouthpiece for prophetic visions some of which have social as well as mystical significance, embodying the aspirations of the tribe in the public arena as well as inner spiritual wisdom.

The Cauldron of Inspiration

The breath of Nine Maidens

Yg kynneir, o’r peir pan leferit:
o anadyl naw morwyn gochyneuit

“So”, Taliesin said, “even when Pwyll went into Annwn, and throughout the time of his sojourn there, , no-one knew of Gweir imprisoned in Caer Sidi, no-one had been there. He dwelt there alone, singing a sad song. But we went, three shiploads of us sailed with Arthur in Prydwen, but of those only seven of us returned.”

It was a story he liked to tell and, not noted for his modesty, the part he played in that raid on the Otherworld was his main theme. It was him, he claimed, that first thought of it, going after the cauldron that was held there in that perilous place. They say it was kindled with the breath of nine maidens, that its rim had pearls on the dark edge of it. It’s virtues were many and various magical things could be done with it, but for him, always in pursuit of the awen, it was the source, the Cauldron of Inspiration, and all the other stuff was just trivia. Those nine maidens were the muses, and each of them had infused it with an element of the awen – three times three, three for the bards, three for the ovates, three for the druids: for bardic craft, learning and wisdom. These comprise the elements of song, but a tenth, the deep infusion of all of them, sung secretly in the heart of a true poet, that was his quest, and that was the song that Gweir sang, imprisoned in his lonely fort.

Could he capture this? So Arthur took him there, braved the engulfing waters, his men eager for the spoils of Annwn. But Taliesin had no patience with them, with men at arms or those who were supposed to be wise, dismissing the soldiers as sluggards with trailing shields, and the priests and scholars as men who knew nothing. Even his fellow poets didn’t fare well in his opinion. What did they know? He, on the other hand, knew everything. He was an awenydd, with the gift of the awen, a true poet blessed by the muse.

So when that man, ‘Death-Dealer’ they called him, stuck his sword in the cauldron and his mate ‘Leaper’ grabbed hold of it, he knew they would never leave that place. Just to have been there, to have looked upon it, to have heard Gweir’s sad lament, that was all he needed. Were they really with him at all? Yes, they went on a raid for loot, and a few of them came back. But which of them went into the Otherworld? Only him, if you know what he found there. No-one else knew, and it was nothing he could show you. But it was a prize he’d sacrifice an eye for if he had to.

Taliesin, the Bardic Tradition and the AWEN /|\

Preiddeu Annwn
Preiddeu Annwn
Preiddeu Annwn from the Manuscript of
The Book of Taliesin

Who was Taliesin?

(1) The Historical Poet

This view of Taliesin sees him as the bard of the Brythonic chieftain Urien in the sixth century kingdom of Rheged which extended from Strathclyde (around modern Glasgow) down into Cumbria in the northern part of the Lake District. Of the mass of poems in The Book of Taliesin a few are still held to be possibly written by this poet. They mainly sing the praises of his lord in common with much of the poetry composed by tribal bards at this time. But The Book of Taliesin is a fourteenth century manuscript collection given that name when discovered in a library in the seventeenth century. So the poems in it are not, in the form we have them, from the sixth century but later copies. As, initially, no-one could read them, they were assumed to be the work of a poet writing in Old Welsh. By now it has been established that most of the poems must be much more recent than that and all are, in fact, written in Middle Welsh in the manuscript versions we have.
If that was all that could be said, Taliesin would be no better known than Aneirin, another poet from what is now southern Scotland writing around the same time, who composed a series of elegies for the members of the Gododdin tribe who were wiped out in an attack on the Angles at the battle of Catraeth (modern Catterick in Yorkshire). That is, as with Aneirin, the debate about him would mainly be restricted to scholars attempting to date the poems from linguistic and historical evidence or discussing their contribution to the successive literary tradition in Welsh.

But Taliesin, like Myrddin, a third poet identified with the same area, has been mythologised in a number of ways. And if the mythologisation of Myrddin as Merlin is at least clear and transparent, Taliesin has been transformed into a much more complex wizard for later generations.

(2) The Legendary Bard

Many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin contain prophecies which link them to historical events in the ninth and tenth centuries. Others refer to stories that link them with prose tales in Y Mabinogi. Or with legendary exploits such as the raid by Arthur on Annwfn – the Brythonic Other World – to capture a magical cauldron. What is clear from consideration of the range of poems attributed to Taliesin is that, like Arthur, his name became a magnet for disparate material but also that he became the ‘type’ of the inspired poet. When later generations of Welsh poets in the Middle Ages looked back to the sources of their tradition, the place of beginning was ‘The Old North’, an area of southern Scotland and Northern England. Here the earliest poets using Welsh after it had developed from the Brythonic language some time after the Roman occupation, were seen as forefathers of the Welsh bardic tradition – one was called ‘Tad Awen’ (Father of the Muse) by Nennius in the 9th century, though none of his poems have survived. Collectively they were called the ‘Cynfeirdd’ (the earliest poets) and Taliesin became their iconic representative. So already, by the ninth century, he was being represented as a prophet and a magical figure who was present (whether imaginatively or otherwise) at various historical and legendary events from the beginning of the world to Arthur’s raid on the Other World. He was, in the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi, one of the seven who returned with the head of Brân from Ireland and sojourned with that head in Gwales in a timeless suspension of the everyday world. This is the poet as ‘awenydd’, an inspired individual such as those described by Gerald of Wales in the twelfth century, going into a prophetic or visionary state. He could now be regarded as the Spirit of Poetry.

(3) The Spirit of Poetry

At some point, inevitably, Taliesin entered the folklore tradition. The familiar story about Gwion Bach being given the job of stirring the cauldron of the witch Ceridwen and gaining universal knowledge by tasting a drop of the contents using a common folklore narrative pattern. Similarly the sequence of shape-shifting as Ceridwen chases him and each turn into something different until she, as a hen, gobbles him up when he is disguised as a seed. His rebirth from her womb, his survival in his new identity as Taliesin, and his subsequent exploits at the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd, link this story to the legend of the gifted poet. In one sense this is just another example of the ‘magnet’ effect mentioned above, with the name Taliesin simply being attached to existing folk tale motifs. But in another sense it indicates how the figurative shape-shifter has become a ‘type’ not just of the Welsh bardic tradition but of the Spirit of Poetry itself.

Patrick Ford in his discussion of Ystoria Taliesin (the sixteenth century prose tale in Welsh based on his continued presence on the folk tradition) says this:
“Clearly the tales of Gwion Bach and Taliesin cannot be lightly dismissed as “folktale” or late developments. Perceptible in them and in their attendant poems, despite the layering of successive generations and external influences, lies the myth of the primeval poet, in whom resides all wisdom.” [1]

Patrick Ford sees the story of Gwion being swallowed by Ceridwen and cast into the waters in a leathern bag to emerge as Taliesin as a death and rebirth theme, still being retold in the version known as Ystoria Taliesin. He presents this as the poet sacrificing himself to his muse, to be compared therefore with mythological figures such as Odin sacrificing himself to himself, and with representations of the Spirit of Poetry in Irish stories such as the one discussed HERE. He defines the ideal form of the awenydd or inspired poet and the condition that such a figure aspires to attain.

Many of the elements in the folktale can be found in the poems of The Book of Taliesin. For instance, in a number of the  poems the source of poetry is identified as a cauldron, most often identified as the Cauldron of Ceridwen. But in one poem there is a quite dense poetic construction in which the word for cauldron (peir) can also mean ‘sovereign’ which is often used as a metonym for God. So the words

“pan doeth o peir / ogyrwen awen teir” can be translated

“when there came from the cauldron / the ogyrwen of three-fold inspiration”,

or they could equally be translated as

“when there came from the Sovereign (God) / the three aspects of inspiration”.

In the most recent scholarly edition of these poems[2] Marged Haycock describes this as “a nicely calculated ambiguity”, indicating that both meanings are intended here. The Book of Taliesin is a difficult text to interpret even for scholars and the poem from which these lines come – Kadeir Teÿrnon – has been described as bewildering and unintelligible. So any interpretations are provisional. But from its use here and elsewhere it is clear that ‘ogyrwen’ is the name of at least one of the three divisions of awen, or it is a term describing all three ( so, ‘the three ogyrwen of awen’). But what is clear is that the poem deliberately conflates the cauldron and God (as the Trinity) as its source. We might regard this as a neat bit of theology or an example of clever bardic word-wizardry of the sort the Taliesin figure often boasts about.

This reference is, in fact, just one example of a debate about the nature of awen among the early Welsh bards. In a discussion of this issue Patrick Ford[2] cites an exchange between the bards Rhys Goch and Llywelyn ap Moel about the source of awen as to whether is comes from the “Holy Spirit” or from “The Cauldron of Ceridwen” and also cites a line from another medieval Welsh bard, called Prydydd y Moch, who conflates the two options with the line “The Lord God gives me sweet awen , as from the cauldron of Ceridwen”. It is thought that Prydydd y Moch might have written some of the poems in The Book of Taliesin and so would be Taliesin himself in his thirteenth century guise. That is, he would have adopted the Taliesin persona for the purposes of an awenydd rather than in the context of his duties as a court poet for which he would use either his own name or his recognised bardic title (Llywarch ap Llewelyn/Prydydd y Moch ).

Patrick Ford comments; “It seems appropriate that the persona of Taliesin, as representative of the old native tradition, should insist on the magical origins of awen and its use as a vehicle for traditional kinds of knowledge.” [3] But he also refers to the view of Marged Haycock[4] that the medieval Welsh bards were also working within the context of Christianity and the persona of Taliesin also had to function within this world view rather than as a “druid desperately making a last stand for paganism”. He looked both ways, expressing current Christian thinking about God conceived of as a Trinity, locking this into the concept of the threefold nature of awen, but also maintaining his status as one who had links back to the older world.

So Taliesin denounces the other bards not as Gildas had done for their ungodliness, but because they have lost touch with the real roots of poetry, with the authentic awen. At the same time he ensures that he cannot himself be accused of being ungodly. But alongside this older notion awen is a developing concept during the Middle Ages and its divine nature necessarily takes on the prevalent Christian sense of divinity.

By the end of the eighteenth century, when Iolo Morganwg was putting together the scattered remnants of this tradition and the process of re-interpreting it was getting under way, the awen became the central symbol and ideal expression of the druidic renaissance as it is still held to be today both in the religious practice of druidry and in the continuing bardic tradition among Welsh language poets.

References:
[1] Patrick Ford Ystoria Taliesin (Cardiff, 1992)
[2] Marged Haycock Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin (CMCS, 2007).
[3] Patrick Ford’s introduction to his edition of Y Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales (1977) which contains the story of Gwion Bach and Taliesin.
[4] ‘Preiddeu Annwn and the Figure of Taliesin’ in Studia Celtica18/19, as cited by Ford, though since this article was published Marged Haycock has developed her ideas in greater detail in the work cited at [2] above and in also her more recent Prophetic Poems from the Book of Taliesin (2013).