Taliesin

Taliesin

[tal-ee-es-in]
Taliesin or Taliessin, 6th cent.?, Welsh bard, whose Book of Taliesin is one of the great Welsh poetic works. The book exists only in a 13th-century form, but tradition places Taliesin in the 6th cent., as a contemporary of the battles his poems celebrate. One theory about Taliesin is that he was an ancient Celtic mythical character, about whose name have collected a series of traditional poems.
Taliesin (c. 534 – c. 599), (spelled as Taliessin in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King and in some subsequent works), was a Brythonic poet of Sub-Roman Britain whose work has 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.

Eleven of the preserved poems, according to Ifor Williams, date from the 6th century and may be ascribed to the historical Taliesin. These indicate that he became court bard to King Brochfael Ysgithrog of Powys around 555, then to his successor Cynan Garwyn, and lastly to King Urien of Rheged and his son Owain mab Urien. Some of the events to which the poems refer, such as the Battle of Arfderydd (c. 583) are known from other sources.

In legend and medieval Welsh poetry, he is often referred to as Taliesin Ben Beirdd ("Taliesin, Chief of Bards"). He is mentioned as one of the five British poets of renown, along with Talhaearn Tad Awen ("Talhaearn Father of the Muse"), Aneirin, Blwchbardd, and Cian Gwenith Gwawd ("Cian Wheat of Song"), in the Historia Britonum, and is also mentioned in Y Gododdin.

Legend has it that, as a child, Taliesin was adopted by Elffin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, and that he prophesied the death, from the Yellow Plague, of Maelgwn Gwynedd. In later stories he became a mythic hero, companion of Bran the Blessed and King Arthur. His mythological life-story is found in several late renderings (see below), the earliest being from the hand of Elis Gruffydd (mid-16th century).

Biography

Little, beyond what can be gleaned from the historical poems, is known about his life. It is striking that he is not the first named by Nennius, nor does he have a title or sobriquet, suggesting that, to the author of the Historia Brittonum, he was not the pre-eminent poet of the late 6th century.

According to tradition first recorded in the 16th century, 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. The tradition 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.

The idea that he was a bard at the court of King Arthur dates back at least to Culhwch and Olwen, perhaps a product of the 11th century, and was elaborated upon in modern 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, is a traditional site for his grave; the village of Tre-Taliesin, located at the foot of the hill, was named after the bard in the 19th century. A manuscript in the hand of 18th century literary forgerer Iolo Morganwg claimed he was the son of Saint Henwg of Llanhennock but this is contrary to every other fact and tradition.

Book of Taliesin

Some of the texts of The Book of Taliesin, scholars believe, are examples of 10th century Welsh. Since all poetry was transmitted orally in Taliesin's day, possibly the original poems were first written down four centuries later using the contemporary spellings of that day. Sir Ifor Williams published the text with notes in Canu Taliesin (1960), and later published in an English version 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 and, though some may claim Taliesin as author, are clearly later, while others again 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 (now 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 mythical Taliesin.

The mythical account of his life

In the mid 16th century, Elis Gruffydd wrote a mythological 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, and has many characteristics of creation mythology. 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.

Birth

Taliesin began life as Gwion Bach, a servant to the enchantress Ceridwen. Ceridwen had a beautiful daughter and an ugly son named Morfran (also called Avagddu), whose appearance no magic could cure. Ceridwen sought to give him the gift of wisdom as compensation and cooked a potion granting wisdom inspiration (Awen), which had to be cooked for a year and a day. A blind man named Morda tended the fire beneath the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stirred. The first three drops of liquid from this cauldron would give wisdom; the rest was a fatal poison. Three hot drops spilled onto Gwion's thumb as he stirred, and he instinctively put his thumb in his mouth, instantly gaining wisdom and knowledge. The first thought that occurred to him was that Ceridwen would kill him, so 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, he turned into a single grain of corn and she became a hen and ate him. She became pregnant. 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 threw him in the ocean in a leather bag.

Discovery by Elffin

The baby was found by Elffin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, 'Lord of Ceredigion', while fishing for salmon. Surprised at the whiteness of the boy's brow, he exclaimed "dyma Dal Iesin", meaning "this is a radiant brow." Taliesin, thus named, began to recite beautiful poetry, saying:

Fair Elffin, cease your lament!
....Though I am weak and small,
On the wave crest of the the surging sea,
I shall be better for you
Than three hundred shares of salmon.

Elffin 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....''

Amazed, Elffin asked how a baby could talk. Again Taliesin replied with poetry:

"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 Gwynedd

A few years later, when Taliesin turned thirteen, Elffin was at the court of King Maelgwn Gwynedd, claiming Taliesin was a better bard and that his wife a better woman than anyone the king had in his court. Maelgwn's son Rhun went to Elffin's house to seduce his wife and prove Elffin's claims weren't true. Rhun got her drunk and tried to take off her wedding ring to prove her unfaithfulness. But Elffin was unconvinced. Maelgwn then demanded Taliesin prove the claim that he was a better bard than the ones in his court. Taliesin then prophesied the king's downfall in a flood of stanzas, while the king's bards could only play with their lips and make baby noises. Elffin was released from the prison into which he had been cast.

References

  • 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 2007. Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin (CMCS, Aberystwyth)
  • 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.
  • Ifor Williams. 1960. Canu Taliesin. Translated into English by J. E. Caerwyn Williams as The Poems of Taliesin Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies: Dublin. (first edition 1967, reprinted 1975, 1987)
  • Ifor Williams. 1944. Lectures on Early Welsh poetry. Dublin: DIAS

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