Born 29th April 534
Taliesin was an early Brythonic poet of Sub-Roman Britain whose work has possibly survived in a Middle Welsh manuscript, the Book of Taliesin. Taliesin was a renowned bard who is believed to have sung at the courts of at least three Celtic British kings.
A maximum of eleven of the preserved poems have been dated to as early as the 6th century, and were ascribed to the historical Taliesin. The bulk of this work praises King Urien of Rheged and his son Owain mab Urien, although several of the poems indicate that he also served as the court bard to King Brochfael Ysgithrog of Powys and his successor Cynan Garwyn, either before or during his time at Urien's court. Some of the events to which the poems refer, such as the Battle of Arfderydd (c. 583), are referred to in other sources.
His name, spelled as Taliessin in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and in some subsequent works, means "shining brow" in Middle Welsh. In legend and medieval Welsh poetry, he is often referred to as Taliesin Ben Beirdd ("Taliesin, Chief of Bards" or chief of poets). He is mentioned as one of the five British poets of renown, along with Talhaearn Tad Awen ("Talhaearn Father of the Muse"), Aneirin, Blwchfardd, and Cian Gwenith Gwawd ("Cian Wheat of Song"), in the Historia Brittonum, and is also mentioned in the collection of poems known as Y Gododdin. Taliesin was highly regarded in the mid-twelfth century as the supposed author of a great number of romantic legends.
According to legend Taliesin was adopted as a child by Elffin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, and prophesied the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd from the Yellow Plague. In later stories he became a mythic hero, companion of Bran the Blessed and King Arthur. His legendary biography is found in several late renderings (see below), the earliest surviving narrative being found in a manuscript chronicle of world history written by Elis Gruffydd in the 16th century.
Book of Taliesin
There is no record of Taliesin outside of his own poems. These are recorded in the Book of Taliesin, a 14th-century manuscript containing 56 poems, the majority of which are of a later date, but a number among which are accepted as dating to the 6th century. These poems refer to victories by Urien at the battles of Argoed Llwyfain and Gwen Ystrad. Urien's son Owain fought alongside his father at the first of these and slew the enemy leader Fflamddwyn. Some scholars have argued that Fflamddwyn is actually Ida of Bernicia and that the battle occurred around the year 547. Taliesin may or may not have served Owain mab Urien following Urien's death, as the chronology is not entirely clear. While Taliesin certainly outlived Owain, as demonstrated by a lament he composed for Owain's death, there is no proof that he survived Urien. Taliesin also sang in praise of Cynan Garwyn, king of Powys, Wales.
Some of the texts of The Book of Taliesin, scholars believe, are examples of 10th century Welsh. Since much if not all Welsh poetry was transmitted orally in Taliesin's day, it is possible that the original poems were first written down four centuries later using the contemporary spellings of that day. Sir Ifor Williams, whose work helped lay the foundations for the academic study of Old Welsh, particularly early Welsh poetry, published the text with notes in Canu Taliesin (1960), and subsequently in an English version as The Poems of Taliesin (1968).
John Gwenogvryn Evans dated the Book of Taliesin to around 1275, but Daniel Huws now dates it to the first quarter of the 14th century. Most of the poems in the collection are quite late (around 10th to 12th century), though some claim Taliesin as author while others are attributed internally to other poets. A few of the "marks" presumably awarded for poems - or at least measuring their "value" - are extant in the margin of the Book of Taliesin.
Of the poems in The Book of Taliesin, twelve are addressed to known historical kings such as Cynan Garwyn, king of Powys, and Gwallog of Elmet. Eight 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 (identified by most scholars as present-day Catterick in North Yorkshire) and west to Galloway. One poem, a "marwnad" or death lament, was addressed to Owain, son of Urien.
The rest comprises some poems addressing mythological and religious topics as well as a few works such as 'Armes Prydein Vawr', the content of which implies that they were by later authors. Many lack the characteristics, metre and 'poetic tag' associated with the work of the historical Taliesin. Much of this material is associated with the legendary Taliesin.
Legendary account of his life
More detailed traditions of Taliesin's biography arose in the Welsh Middle Ages, from about the 11th century, and in Historia Taliesin ("The Tale of Taliesin", surviving from the 16th century).
According to these texts, Taliesin was the foster-son of Elffin ap Gwyddno, who gave him the name Taliesin, meaning "radiant brow", and who later became a king in Ceredigion, Wales. The legend states that he was then raised at his court in Aberdyfi and that at the age of 13, he visited King Maelgwn Gwynedd, Elffin's uncle, and correctly prophesied the manner and imminence of Maelgwn's death. A number of medieval poems attributed to Taliesin allude to the legend but they postdate the historical poet's floruit by at least 500 years, or more.
The idea that he was a bard at the court of King Arthur dates back at least to the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, perhaps a product of the 11th century. It is elaborated upon in modern English poetry, such as Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Charles Williams's Taliessin Through Logres. 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.
Bedd Taliesin, a hilltop Bronze Age tumulus in Ceredigion, opposite Aberdyfi (see above), is a traditional site for his grave but the village of Tre-Taliesin, located at the foot of the hill, was actually named after the bard in the 19th century.
A manuscript in the hand of 18th-century literary forger Iolo Morganwg claimed he was the son of Saint Henwg of Llanhennock but this is contrary to every other fact and tradition. In it he is said to have been educated in the school of Catwg, at Llanfeithin, in Glamorgan, Wales, which the historian Gildas also attended. Captured as a youth by Irish pirates while fishing at sea, he is said to have escaped by using a wooden buckler for a boat; he landed at the fishing weir of Elffin, one of the sons of Urien (all medieval Welsh sources, however, make Elffin the son of Gwyddno Garanhir). Urien made him Elffin's instructor, and gave Taliesin an estate of land. But once introduced to the court of the warrior-chief, Taliesin became his foremost bard, followed him in his wars, and wrote of his victories.
In the mid 16th century, Elis Gruffydd recorded a legendary account of Taliesin which resembles the story of the boyhood of the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhail and the salmon of wisdom in some respects. The tale was also recorded in a slightly different version by John Jones of Gellilyfdy (c. 1607). A composite version based on these accounts is given below.
Taliesin began life as Gwion Bach, a servant to Ceridwen, the wife of a nobleman Tegid Foel, in the days when King Arthur ruled. She was a magician who had three arts she learned: enchantment, magic, and divination. Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and an ugly son named Morfran, which means "Great Crow", whose appearance no magic could cure. Later he became known as Afagddu, which means "Utter Darkness". Ceridwen felt in order for him to gain respect and acceptance from noblemen he had to have great qualities to compensate for his ugly looks, so she sought to give him the gift of wisdom and knowledge. Through her arts she found a way of giving her son these special qualities, so she found special herbs from the earth in order to do this Inspiration (Awen), which had to be constantly stirred and cooked for a year and a day in a cauldron.
A blind man, whose name we do not know, was assigned by Ceridwen to stir the cauldron, while Gwion Bach, a young lad, stoked the fire underneath it. The first three drops of liquid from this cauldron would give would be, "extraordinarily learned in various arts and full of spirit of prophecy" (The Tale of Gwion Bach), and the rest was a fatal poison. After all Ceridwen's hard work she sat down, and accidentally fell asleep. While she was asleep the three drops sprang from the cauldron and Gwion Bach shoved Morfran out of the way so he could get the three drops. Instantly, he gained wisdom. Knowing from his wisdom that Ceridwen would be very angry once she found out what happened that he ran away.
All too soon he heard her fury and the sound of her pursuit. He turned himself into a hare on the land and she became a greyhound. He turned himself into a fish and jumped into a river: she then turned into an otter. He turned into a bird in the air, and in response she became a hawk.
Exhausted, Ceridwen managed to force him into a barn, where he turned into a single grain of corn and she became a tufted black hen and ate him. She became pregnant because of this. She resolved to kill the child, knowing it was Gwion, but when he was born he was so beautiful that she couldn't, so she had him put into a hide covered basket and thrown into the lake, river, or sea, depending on which version of this tale it is.
Discovery by Elffin
The baby was found by Elphin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, 'Lord of Ceredigion', while fishing for salmon. Surprised at the whiteness of the boy's forehead, he exclaimed "this is a radiant forehead." (in Welsh: tal iesin). Taliesin, thus named, began to sing stanzas (poetry), known as Dehuddiant Elphin, saying:
- Fair Elffin, cease your weeping!
- Despair brings no profit.
- No catch in Gwyddno's weir
- Was ever as good as tonight's.
- Let no one revile what is his;
- Man sees not what nurtures him.
- Gwyddno's prayers shall not be in vain.
- God breaks not his promises.
- Fair Elphin, dry your cheeks!
- It does not become you to be sad.
- Though you think you have no gain
- Undue grief will bring you nothing,
- Nor will doubting the miracles of the Lord.
- Though I am small, I am gifted.
- From the sea and the mountain, from rivers' depths
- God sent bounty to the blessed.
- Elphin of cheerful disposition-
- Meek is your mind.
- You must not lament so heavily.
- Better God than gloomy foreboding.
- Though I am frail and little
- And wet with spume of Dylan's sea,
- I shall earn in a day of contention
- Riches better than three score for you.
- Elphin of the remarkable qualities,
- Grieve not for your catch.
- Though I am frail here in my bunting,
- There are wonders on my tongue.
- You must not fear greatly
- While I am watching over you.
- By remembering the name of the Trinity
- None can overcome you.
Court of Maelgwn Gwynedd
Sometime later, during a Christmas feast, a crowd of lords, knights, and squires praised King Maelgwn Gwynedd. Amongst this, Elphin interjected that he had a wife who is even more chaste than the King’s and that he also had a bard who is more proficient than all of the king’s bards combined. When the king heard of this boast from his companions, he was very angry and imprisoned Elphin.
To test Elphin’s claims, Maelgwn sent his son Rhun (who had a reputation of never being turned down by a woman) to Elphin’s house to despoil his wife’s virtue. Taliesin intervened just in time with a clever scheme that involved his mistress exchanging places with a scullery maid. Rhun sat down to have dinner with the disguised maid, and when she fell asleep he cut off a finger of hers that wore Elphin’s signet ring. When the king saw this, he tried to boast to Elphin that his wife was not so virtuous after all. Elphin then calmly inspected the finger and told the king that there was no way that this finger actually belonged to his wife. The size was wrong, the nails were not manicured enough, and there was evidence of kneading rye dough which was not an activity that his wife took part in.
This angered the king even more, and Elphin was once again imprisoned.
To prove Elphin’s boast about his bard, Taliesin showed up at Maelgwn’s court. Somehow, Taliesin supernaturally enchanted the king’s bards so that they could only pucker their lips and make nonsensical sounds. When the king summoned Taliesin to see why this was done, Taliesin replied to the king in a series of stanzas. Taliesin’s wisdom amazed and intimidated the king, so he decided to release Elphin.
Once freed, Taliesin provoked Elphin to wager that he also had a faster horse than the king. This resulted in a race to prove that boast. Under Taliesin’s instruction, Elphin whipped each of the king’s 24 horses on the rump with a burnt holly stick. A cap was thrown down exactly where Elphin’s horse finished, and gold was later discovered to be buried under the same spot. In this way, Taliesin repaid his master for taking him in and raising him.
The tale of Taliesin ends with him telling prophecies to the Maelgwn about the origin of the human race and what will now happen to the world.
The modern Welsh poet John Davies of Denbighshire (1841–94) took the bardic name of Taliesin Hiraethog. The world-renowned American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, was born in Wales, named his Wisconsin home and studio Taliesin in honour of the poet. Deep Purple's second studio album was named "The Book of Taliesyn" in honour of the bard.