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by Bo Williams


Academia and neo-paganism have been at dismal cross-purposes over the figure of Taliesin for decades, and the problem shows no signs of getting any better. Pagans (especially modern druids) are often fascinated by the figure of the shape-shifting quasi-divine poet, and tend to be convinced that the material relating to him extant from medieval Wales gives us a longed-for insight into the philosophy of the ancient Druids. They often resent the efforts of academics to examine this material critically, seeing the results of this research as reductive and devoid of imagination when it produces answers which are found uncongenial. Academics, in turn, are baffled by this ‘pagan’ Taliesin, which they see as a figure resulting from a wilful New-Age wallowing in a soup of preposterous misinformation. Both ‘sides’ could accuse the other of doctrinaire self-satisfaction.


This purpose of this article is to set down  the information we have about Taliesin as clearly as possible, and the first thing to grasp is what our sources are. 


In historical order, they are:


c. 830 AD

A mention of Taliesin in the 9th century Historia Brittonum, as one of the men who ‘flourished in British poetry’ during the reign of Ida, King of Northumbria, at the end of the 6th century AD. It is no more than a mention, and Taliesin is not the first on the list. He is given no title, whereas other poets in the list get fancy names like ‘Wheat of Song’ and ‘Father of the Muse’. Together, these facts suggest that the author of the Hisoria Brittonum did not think of Taliesin as having been the preeminent poet of the late 6th century.


c. 1050 AD

Culhwch and Olwen

This narrative tale mentions Taliesin briefly as ‘Chief of Poets’ and a member of Arthur’s court. The perception of Taliesin's status had clearly altered since the 9th century.


c. 1100 AD

Branwen Daughter of Llŷr

Taliesin is mentioned as one of the seven survivors of Bran the Blessed’s expedition to Ireland. 


c. 1325 AD

‘The Book of Taliesin’

A collection of medieval Welsh poetry, prophecy and religious verse, probably intended as a compendium of material associated with Taliesin. Altogether, it contains some 62 poems. The scribe was extremely good, and throughout it is written in a good, clear hand. (We must throw out fantasies of crumbling volumes full of hard-to-make-out arcana.) The manuscript was written c. 1325 AD, but the relative dates of the various poems inside are hard to ascertain, as I discuss below. The ‘youngest’ material in the compendium may be as little as a hundred years younger than the manuscript itself. 


c. 1550 AD

The Tale of Taliesin

This is the earliest surviving version of the late folk-tale, with which we are all familiar. Very briefly, the story opens with the witch Ceridwen brewing a cauldron of knowledge for her son Afagddu. By mischance, a little boy called Gwion, who is stirring the cauldron, tastes the brew and becomes all-knowing. Ceridwen chases him through a series of shape-changes until eventually she swallows him, and nine months later, gives birth to him as a little baby. She casts the child adrift on the ocean, and he is found caught up on a fishing weir by a chap called Elphin, who names him Taliesin, 'Shining Brow', and adopts him.


* * *

Now – how do we makes sense of all this? The great Celtic scholar Sir Ifor Williams (1881-1965) argued that what we need to do first is bifurcate Taliesin. 

He proposed that the original nucleus of the Taliesin material was a genuine historical personage, namely the late 6th-century poet Taliesin referred to in the 9th-century Historia Brittonum. Williams believed that a number of the poems in the early 14th century Book of Taliesin were in fact the original Old Welsh compositions of this early medieval bard, whom he understood to have been the praise-poet of king Urien of Rheged. Rheged was the Brythonic kingdom around present-day Carlisle and the Eden valley. Williams, who was a linguist of genius, thought he could identify twelve genuine 6th century poems amongst the 60-odd pieces in the Book of Taliesin. He published these with scholarly notes in his Canu Taliesin/The Poems of Taliesinavailable from the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies.


Such a wide gap between date of composition and the date of our only surviving manuscript (seven centuries!) gives scholars the willies, and modern Celtic scholarship has whittled Williams’ twelve poems down to ten or so. Further, linguistic scholarship now shows that the language of the Britons finally transformed itself from late-British into proto-Welsh only around 550 AD, so if Taliesin was a historical person creating verse at the end of that century, he must have been one of the very first wave of poets to compose in the ‘new’ incarnation of the language. However, Williams’ thesis is still pretty much generally accepted in the field. These poems are, therefore, taken to be the very earliest surviving literary works in the Welsh language. 


Williams termed the other Taliesin the ‘mythological’ or ‘mystical’ Taliesin, and he is to be identified with the character who appears in the late folk-tale. Many of the poems in the Book of Taliesin are full of bombastic descriptions of shape-changing, claims of identity with many substances and of encounters with many different historical, mythological and scriptural beings, staccato volleys of questions, and boasts of omnipresence and omnicognisance. Though only some of these are explicitly put in the mouth of Taliesin, it is pretty clear that they are all in the same persona. Williams argued that this ‘persona’ is obviously to be identified with the Taliesin of the late folk-tale, the shape-shifter, the infinitely-knowledgeable super-poet. It is clear that the basic outline of this tale, broadly, was well-known in Wales long before our earliest surviving version was written. 


So what we have now is, as I said, two Taliesins. The first is a late 6th century praise-poet, continuing the tradition of the praise-singers whom classical writers describe attending on Gaulish chiefs, and of the bards of Maelgwn Gwynedd, who were famously vituperated by Gildas in the early 6th century.* Thus this Taliesin is heir to a very ancient tradition of panegyric, which flows from the ancient Celts all the way down into the late Irish and Welsh Middle Ages and beyond. Our second Taliesin is the ‘mystical’ shape-changer. 


Williams used the poems which he considered genuinely 6th-century to construct a plausible narrative of the historical poet’s career, and as Williams was a very great scholar, his interpretation still makes much sense. (But I don’t rule out the possibility that some enterprising researcher may radically revise Williams’ theory in the future. The recent demonstration that at least one of the supposedly ‘historical’ poems is a 10th century ‘forgery’ is worrying for the authenticity of the rest of Williams’ cache of poems. But until then, his theory still holds good.)


Now a word on the character of this poetry: it is highly formulaic, full of mentions of Urien’s lavish generosity and skill in battle, and with remarkable emphasis on the poet’s own feelings. One of the poems is a moving elegy for his lord’s son, Owain son of Urien, again praising his generosity and military valour as the highest virtues. The poems tend to be of loose 8- or 9-syllable lines, ornamented with rhyme and lots of alliteration. They are paeans of praise, elegies, requests for reconciliation, not narrative poems. The language is fearsomely difficult – we normally teach people this poetry only when they have been reading Middle Welsh intensely for at least a year. Many lines are obscure and have to be emended, as one would expect for very old poetry which had passed through centuries of textual transmission.


What they are not, in any way at all, is ‘mystical’ or ‘druidic’. I’ll say that again – the earliest poems associated with Taliesin, which were written only a couple of centuries after the general conversion of the Britons to Christianity – have nothing pagan, druidic, or magical in them. The ‘Elegy for Owain’, one of the best poems, explicitly refers to the Christian God, asking that he consider the soul of the fallen hero.


The rest of the material in the Book of Taliesin, in the mouth of the ‘mystical’ Taliesin, is later. It must date to a 300-year period between about 900 AD and 1220 AD. Some individual poems in the manuscript can be dated precisely – the ‘Prophecy of Britain’ can be exactly dated to 930 AD. You may ask, quite reasonably, why the hell we can’t tie these other poems down any more precisely. The reasons are several. The first is that we often use references to contemporary political and social events to help date medieval poems. (This is, for example, how we know the date of the ‘Prophecy of Britain’ so accurately.) ‘Mythological’ poetry tends to be an inward-looking genre, which makes little reference to outer, worldly events and so in this case this approach tends to avail us nothing. Secondly, this kind of poetry, with its short lines and deliberate opacities, is rather unlike the rest of the verse which was being composed in the period – the religious verse and exalted praise-poetry of the poets known as the Gogynfeirdd, the 'Fairly early poets'. Thus it is difficult to compare it directly with other works surviving from the period, which might have helped us date individual poems. Finally, the skills required are highly specialised, and you need an expert in Welsh literature, linguistics, history and poetic forms to sit down and devote a decade or so of research-time to the material. Such people are few on the ground, but we are fortunate that Marged Haycock of the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, has recently published a magisterial edition, commentary and introduction to the poems that are most of interest to contemporary Pagans. She is undoubtedly the world expert on this poetry. (She also examined my PhD thesis - I was very honoured.) Her book is Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin (Aberystwyth, 2007), with a companion volume, Prophetic Poems from the Book of Taliesin, forthcoming. Anyone who has a serious interest in Taliesin and the traditions associated with him cannot do without this book.


It’s safe to say that there is a spread of dates represented in the ‘mystical’ Taliesin poems in the Book of Taliesin. Some, like the famous ‘Spoils of Annwn’ are probably from 900-950 AD. Certainly it is one of the older poems in the voice of the ‘mystical’ Taliesin. Many others may be 12th century or later. Haycock suggests that some of them may – may – be the work of Llywarch ap Llywelyn, a poet who bore the sobriquet ‘Prydydd y Moch’, ‘the Poet of the Pigs’. He was active between 1174 AD and 1220 AD, in the Gwynedd court of Llywelyn ap Iorweth. There are certain persistent resemblances in diction to poems which we can ascribe to him with confidence, and Haycock makes a good case that many of the ‘mythological’ poems may in fact be his compositions. Just to add a bit of termporal focus – this means that many of the poems that druids and John Matthews look to for deeply archaic, ‘shamanic’ material date in fact to a century after the Norman Conquest of England, fifty odd years after Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain and Life of Merlin, and only a century or so before Chaucer and Dafydd ap Gwilym were writing. They look like creations of the Welsh high Middle Ages, not the obscure pagan/Christian borderland of the early Dark Ages.


So. What we have so far is a kernel of non-mystical, historical praise-poems by a flesh-and-blood Taliesin, from the end of the 6th century AD, and a slew of weird and wonderful poems in the voice of a shape-changing, time-travelling, all-knowing, rather insufferable ‘Taliesin’, dating from the period 900 AD to perhaps 1220 AD, probably clustering towards the end of that period, with a significant proportion perhaps the work of the great gogynfardd Prydydd y Moch.


Here’s the problem for Pagans. If you want the later, ‘mystical’ poems to be the relics of druidic doctrine, why are they later, and not earlier?! One would expect the most apparently archaic and pagan poems to be the closest to the actual pagan period. If they in fact dated from the 6th century, when there presumably were still some non-Christians about in the wilds of Britain, and there were certainly still real druids in Ireland, there might be a case to answer. But they don’t. They’re centuries too late. A poem written in 1200 AD is intrinsically rather unlikely to convey accurate information about the beliefs of a class of people who were destroyed or driven underground eleven centuries before. Neither can one get away with the argument that these poems might have been handed down orally for centuries, and only written down for the first time between 900 and 1200 AD. This won’t wash, because the poems usually rhyme, and as languages change over centuries, word-endings change and this tends to abrade rhyme. (Rhyme is one of our most useful tools when it comes to dating medieval Celtic verse.) An oral poem that rhymed in 575 AD would no longer rhyme in 1200 AD, because the nuts and bolts of the words had shifted and altered. (To Chaucer, ‘breath’ and ‘heath’ rhymed. To us, they no longer do. Something similar happened in Welsh.)

Instead, what we need to ask is: ‘What the hell happened to the name of Taliesin between the historical poet’s death around 600 AD, and around 1050 AD, when we suddenly see the ‘mystical’ figure taking shape? Why would Welsh poets from 1050 AD – 1200 AD be so interested in creating such a figure?’ As actors say, ‘what’s my motivation in this scene?’ It must have happened in the latter half of the 9th century, since to the author of the Historia Brittonum around 830 AD Taliesin was simply a historical poet of the 6th century (not the most important of the period, either), and not a magical, shape-shifting psychonaut. So this vogue for fashioning the ‘mystical’ Taliesin is probably something that got underway in the late 9th and early 10th century.

It seems to me that at this period Taliesin, as a name, was like the string dipped in a glass of sugar solution, about which crystals form. It is very likely that Taliesin was developing a legend by the year 1050 AD at the very latest – we can see that the authors ofCulhwch and Olwen and ‘The Spoils of Annwn’ were happily associating him with Arthur, and that the redactor of the Four Branches places him among the retinue of Bran the Blessed. (The historical Taliesin must have lived 150-odd years after Arthur, if the latter ever existed.) There is some evidence that at this stage, in the 10th and 11th centuries, there was a kind of ‘antiquarian’ vogue amongst Welsh literati – an interest in the Old North, its kings, dynasties and poets. This may have kick-started a process of mythologizing around the core of poems which had been transmitted under the name of Taliesin, and speculation about the power of the ancient poet. 


A little later, Welsh court poetry during the 11-13th centuries was reaching one kind of climax of complexity and sophistication, and the professional court poets were often, it seems, rather full of themselves. Self-dramatisation was a career requirement. They had a high opinion of their own learning, considering themselves masters of not only native lore, poetic forms, topography, history, genealogy and story (the complex of lore which the Irish called senchus), but also of the mainstream ecclesiastical intellectual curriculum. They were inordinately proud of the fact that they were experts in ‘book-learning’ - the Bible, the apocrypha, hagiography, the Latin language, school-texts like Orosius and Isidore, and to a certain extent medieval science - as well as the native lore which was the natural inheritance of their order. We can detect a certain boastful jockeying with clerics and lesser, rival poets for social position, patronage, and prestige. (If you want to sample this kind of poetry in translation, I recommend Rhian Andrews’ Welsh Court Poetry.)

Marged Haycock argues, and I agree, that the ‘mythical’ or ‘mystical’ Taliesin isn’t a ‘worn-out old druid making a last stand for paganism’, but should be seen as a kind of self-congratulatory totem of the top-class professional court poets of 11-13th century Wales. With his challenges and harangues, he is a kind of boastful symbol of their self-confidence and power, endlessly rattling off their range of knowledge, vaunting the ability of poetry to penetrate the past and future with immediacy and power. Professional poets were, after all, expensive for a prince to maintain: they required board and upkeep, and due acknowledgement. As a result of shelling out liberally, every so often you’d get a praise-poem or an elegy, in very difficult, high-faluting language. There must have been an urge on the part of some aristocrats to patronise less exalted, less expensive, less difficult forms of poet, who were not proper professional bards. ‘Taliesin’ may, on one level, be the professional poets’ way of saying: look what we can do - our power, our closeness to the past and the future, our huge, all-encompassing repertoire of knowledge. In essence, ‘Taliesin’ is a symbol of the 11-12th century poets’ sense of their own professional mystique. 


Haycock has carefully analysed the poems in the Book of Taliesin for their sources and analogues. She has turned an expert eye on all those poems which drove old boys like poor J. Gwenogvryn Evans off their heads with druidical fancies a hundred years ago. Her basic assertion – brilliantly, meticulously sustained – is that the kind of lore we find in these ‘mystical’ poems is perfectly ordinary medieval legend, science, school-learning and folklore dressed up: exactly the kinds of material you’d expert the learned literati of high medieval Wales to be conversant with. It’s things like the tides, the planets, the divisions of the earth, the elements, the Venerable Bede’s On the Nature of the Universe, classical stories of Hercules and Alexander the Great, biblical Apocrypha, apocalyptic prophecies, characters from Irish literature, the kinds of legends we see referred to in the Triads, stories about the family of Dôn, materia medica, and tales about Arthur. Incidentally, shape-shifting, one must remember, is one of the most ubiquitous story-motifs the world over (think of Ovid’s Metamorphoses) and occurs frequently in medieval Welsh and Irish literature. Linking it to druidic beliefs in reincarnation or to ‘Celtic shamanism’ simply isn’t necessary or probable. ‘Urbane, international and learned’ (as Haycock describes this poetry), ancient druidic wisdom it ain’t. 

For example, in the poem ‘The Great Song of the World’, Taliesin describes how he is fashioned by God, who formed his ‘seven consistencies’:


Of fire and earth,

Of water and air,

Of mist and flowers,

And the fruitful wind.


Druids have inevitably seen these as ‘the ancient druid elements’, and no doubt some OBODite somewhere has duly incorporated mist, flowers and wind into their circle-casting. This list begins, of course, with the orthodox four elements of the ancient and medieval worlds. However, in a number of medieval texts from the 8th century onwards man is often visualised as a microcosm, fashioned from flowers, cloud, and so on, as well as earth, air, fire and water. (Often salt as well, for tears and sweat.) There is no doubt that the author of this poem was drawing on this kind of material. In essence, almost everything that looks weird and wonderful in the poems in the persona of the ‘mystical Taliesin’ turns out to be from the mainstream of medieval European lore and knowledge. This has led to some delightful ironies: the ‘seven senses’ described in the same poem have been incorporated into chants for use by John Matthews-style ‘Celtic Shamans’, but Haycock shows that they derive in fact from the Biblical Apocrypha and classical sources. The very question-and-answer format of many of the poems can be shown to derive from popular medieval dialogue texts, which often discuss much the same material. (‘What supports the world? What are human beings made of? What is the wind? Into how many regions is the earth divided? What man never died and what man was never born?’) This all sounds terribly mysterious and druidical, but in fact these are the sort of questions that apprentice monks used to tease each other with for entertainment. 


So. Celtic scholars look at Pagan descriptions of Taliesin with a mixture of pleasure and polite bafflement: pleasure that this medieval figure is still of interest and importance to many modern people, but bafflement because they have no truck for the ‘druidic’ or ‘Pagan’ Taliesin, because it just isn’t borne out by the actual texts on which our understanding of the figure and his context must be based. The Pagan habit of reading the Book of Taliesin poems in the expectation that they will tell us something about the pagan 1st century, instead of the Christian 12th century, is a chronic disaster. What’s worse, scholars have known that this was a wrong tree up which to bark for 150 years. (In 1858, the scholar D. W. Nash referred in his book Taliesin to the forgeries and fantasies of Iolo Morgannwg as a ‘monstrous imposture’.) The problem is that high-level Celtic scholarship and popular writing decoupled around 1900, and so a slew of writers such as Lewis Spence produced highly imaginative and wholly wrong accounts of druidic beliefs and so on, drawing on poor translations of this poetry. These books (Spence’s The Mysteries of Britain is a classic of the genre) were wildly popular with English readers, and in turn heavily influenced people like Ross Nicholls, and thus, eventually, filtered through into the flowering of the Druid revival. In the 90s a lot of these books were cheaply reprinted and many Pagans must have had the same reaction I did – I remember reading Spence aged about sixteen, in Cornwall, utterly and completely entranced, and believing every word. To re-emphasise: no one who works professionally on the history, language or literature of medieval Wales has believed any of this old tripe for well over a century, so it is a melancholy thing to find it still (still) being regurgitated by enthusiastic, well-meaning modern Druids. 


One of the saddest episodes in this protracted ‘Does the Taliesin poetry tell us about the doctrine of the druids or not?’ battle involved a scholar called J. Gwenogvryn Evans, whom I mentioned above. In 1910, he produced a simply magnificent facsimile of the Book of Taliesin, and a transcription notable for its scrupulous textual accuracy. It is so good that it was only superseded by the digital facsimile now provided by the National Library of Wales. But he fell in with the druidical-mysteries school badly and inexplicably, and in 1915 published his colossally-misguided Poems from the Book of Taliesin, which was his ‘reconstruction’ of the material according to his theories. This second volume had the misfortune to be reviewed by Sir John Morris-Jones, the greatest Welsh scholar of his time, in a book-length article in the journal Y Cymmrodor. Morris-Jones savaged Evans, demonstrating at great length and in cruelly eloquent detail precisely why Evans’ volume was completely and utterly worthless. ‘That all this trash’, purred Morris-Jones, ‘should be printed in the best ink on the finest paper, is sad indeed.’ Much the same might be said (and is) about the modern heirs to Evans’ Poems, such as John Matthews’ abysmal Taliesin: The Last Celtic Shaman. (A jolly half-hour can be spent comparing Matthews’ ‘translations’ at the end of this latter volume with those of Haycock, which represent perhaps the finest Welsh scholarship of our day.)


So far so good. There is another aspect to this material, however, which complicates matters. The fact is that some aspects of the late folktale about the ‘mystical’ Taliesin look like rather archaic ideas. Transformations, the acquisition of poetic inspiration, the association of poetry and prophecy, this weird stuff about an ugly boy and a beautiful one – much of it can be paralleled from Irish medieval literature. Ideas which are shared over Ireland and Wales tend to be old, and both the Irish and Welsh words for ‘poet’ and ‘poetry’ show an etymological link to prophecy and seership. (There’s nothing especially ‘Celtic’ about this – many of the same ideas are found in Norse texts.)


So the mystical Taliesin material, both in the Book of Taliesin and in the late folk-tale, does seem to preserve some pretty ancient concepts. One can instantly see why the court poets of the 11-13th centuries might well have been interested in this kind of stuff, concerned as they were to bolster the prestige and mystique of their profession. (Patrick Ford's Ystoria Taliesin, an edition of the folktale, has examined this material in most detail.) Though the ideas are ancient, their hitching to the name of Taliesin, the 6th century historical poet, was not. 


It’s not immediately clear why Taliesin – and not any of the other poets mentioned in the Historia Brittonum – became the ‘hook’ for this material, to which, as we saw above, much fairly commonplace lore has been added, along with a penchant for the riddling questions which formed part of several well-known and understood medieval genres. I personally think the poets of the 11-13th centuries chose Taliesin as their symbolic figurehead for the following reason. It’s possible that they simply didn't have much early poetry apart from what we now call the ‘historical’ Taliesin poems, and the Gododdin of Aneirin; in other words, that they were in much the same situation as us, being sadly short on poetry from the 6th and 7th centuries. Now the historical Taliesin’s poetry is intensely ego-focused: he’s always talking about himself, pushing his own persona to the fore, and occasionally says things like: 


I saw Easter

With its myriad candles 

And myriad plants.

I saw leaves as they are wont to sprout;

I saw branches equally laden with flowers.

I saw the attributes of a most generous king…


This tendency to emphasise the poet's subjectivity is akin to the boasting 'I have beens' which fill the 'mystical' poems, and may well have inspired them. The Gododdin is quite different: Aneirin makes almost no authorial impression. He leaves no feeling of character. So, if the court poets were looking for a bombastic figurehead dating from the dawn of their tradition, Taliesin the bard of Urien of Rheged was the obvious choice. To his name was hitched some ancient traditions about the nature of poetry and its acquisition, and gradually he was elaborated into the symbolic, multifunctional persona whom we find in the ‘mystical’ poetry. 


He appears to have been a popular character. Much medieval poetry was all about performance. The Taliesin persona afforded great scope for entertainment – boastful and inflated, he was a poet, a warrior, a sage, a shape-shifter, a traveller in time and space who consorted with biblical figures and the characters we know from the Mabinogi. (A faint parallel with Doctor Who suggests itself...) His questions, which may seem weird and resonantly esoteric to us, would have been less confusing for a medieval audience familiar with the texts on which the authors of these poems were drawing. Many of these poems have long been understood by pagans as arcane and hallowed semi-scripture, behind which one may catch an echo of druidical incantations. But the figure of ‘Taliesin’, so loved by contemporary Pagans for his shamanic air, may in fact have been designed to provoke a sophisticated, high-medieval courtly audience to laughter and cheerful head-scratching. Instead of imagining these poems as the eerie chaunting of a bearded sage hidden away in some Welsh cave, preserving the rites and legends of the ‘Old Gods’, we should imagine a finely-dressed reciter or court-poet declaiming them to a merry audience of aristocrats, nobles and diplomats around the year 1200 AD. As a bravura, prestige-bolstering exercise by court poets taking a rest from their usual stock-in-trade of praise and lament, poems in the voice of this uber-poet would have provided splendid entertainment, testifying to the professional poets’ breadth, vitality and inventiveness. 

* * *


* One of Gildas' best purple-passages. Rhetorically addressing Maelgwn, king of Gwynedd, he splutters: 'When the attention of thy ears has been caught, it is not the praises of God, in the tuneful voice of Christ's followers, with its sweet rhythm, and the song of church melody, that are heard, but thine own praises (which are nothing); the voice of the rascally crew yelling forth, like Bacchanalian revellers, full of lies and foaming phlegm, so as to besmear everyone near them.' This is our earliest description of vernacular praise-poetry in Britain. 

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