Of Taliesin and the Bards
A writer of words and a musician in the past, I find myself immensely proud of the role and function of bardic tradition in Celtic society. I've always been proud of it. As a child I was drawn to the Bard in Disney’s Robin Hood; the colour and vibrancy of the storyteller in these isles. It’s a role that is lauded in British history; the effects of Roman and Norman invasion unable to erase the importance of a storytelling past. To this day, we're a society that holds writers, artists and stories of all sorts in high esteem; if not of high reward at the current time.
Consider this a short list;
The Bard of Armagh Martin Hearty
The Bard of Avon William Shakespeare
The Bard of Ayrshire Robert Burns
The Bard of Olney William Cowper
The Bard of Rydal Mount William Wordsworth
The Bard of Salford John Cooper Clarke
The Bard of Twickenham Alexander Pope
And as an island tribe we’ve taken the prestige of the title ‘Bard’ overseas. In Australia, bush poets and musical artists of the Outback are referred to as ‘Bush Bards’, and in India Rabindranath Tagore is called ‘The Bard of Bengal’. Indeed it works its way into popular culture. Bob Dylan, Jim MacCool and Blind Guardian have all been called ‘Bards’ as a term of endearment and prestige. Not bad for a social function that has its roots in our ancient times.
Keeper of tradition and memory of tribe. And so I come to Taliesin. I love his story, and indeed that of Gwion; he who Taliesin was before and still is. He is a man of many men, the son and servant of a Goddess and witch, a hag.
You see Taliesin is a very real Welsh bard and poet. His work is dated to the 6th century AD, and he’s considered the reincarnation of the child Gwion. Gwion is the boy servant taken by the Hag Goddess Ceridwen to tend household chores.
In time, Ceridwen has two children, a beautiful daughter called Creirwy (‘light’), and the ugliest boy in the world called Afagddu (‘dark’). To compensate for his looks, Ceridwen determines to make a potion for Afagddu that will gift him the most powerful wisdom and artistry so that in life he will be a great seer. This potion, in the making, needs to be stirred continuous, and she tasks the child Gwion to do the stirring.
She warns he must not taste the liquid.
Gwion does stir.
The liquid bubbles; spits and splatters Gwion’s thumb with three drops.
To ease the pain, the boy sucks his thumb and absorbs all the magick. Gifted newfound wisdom, artistry and magical powers, including the ability to shape shift, Gwion realises Ceridwen will be furious and flees. The Goddess gives chase, shapeshifters both now.
Seeing the Ceridwen close the gap, Gwion turns himself into a hare. And so the Goddess becomes a hound; catches up as Gwion dives into water and becomes a fish. The hag becomes an otter and gives chase. Sleek she is in the water and, seeing her close the gap again, Gwion leaps from out the river and becomes a bird, takes to the sky. Ceridwen turns into a hawk and in desperation, the boy does turn himself into a grain of wheat.
He falls from the sky into a field.
Ceridwen, though, will not be outdone. She becomes a hen. Pecks at the field and eats all the grain, so consuming Gwion. The boy is eaten and this might be the end of Gwion, but for the eating. You see, in Celtic mythology pregnancy often follows the eating of magickal things.
So it was with Ceridwen.
Nine months after eating Gwion, the beautiful hag gives birth. Still furious at a boy she considers a thief, but touched by his reborn beauty, she sets the small babe adrift on the sea and so he is found floating near the shore by the Celtic nobleman Elphin. The Celt takes him in as his own and names the child Taliesin (‘radient brow’). It is soon apparent the child is no ordinary babe. Even as a babe, Taliesin speaks poetry and is endowed with the gifts of Ceridwen’s potion. He grows to be the most eloquent poet in the land and, as with many Bards, can shapeshift and see through the veil to the Otherworld.
In various incarnations, born of man and Goddess, he continues on in Celtic legend. It's Taliesin who prophesises the death of a King, Maelgwn Gwynedd, from the Plague of Justinian in the 6th century, and in later tales is considered companion to Bran the Blessed and King Arthur. Whether the poetry associated with Taliesin is indeed his work, or the works of others lost to history and folklore, is now unknown.
Even the greatest of Bards though, cannot escape time forever. Taliesin is said to be buried in Dyfed, in a stone grave called Bedd Taliesin. According to legend, anyone who sleeps on his grave does wake a poet...
Or rises insane;
Go on, dare you.