Arthurian and Grail Poetry
Taliesin, literally, the "Radiant Brow," was an early bard who may have lived a little later than the traditional Arthurian period, but was nonetheless drawn into the Arthurian saga. We know very little about the historical poet, excepting what may be gleaned from his works, and from the information provided in the Iolo MSS. published by the Welsh MSS. Society. The following is taken from Anthony Powel of Llwydartys MS.
"Taliesin, Chief of the Bards, the son of Saint Henwg of Caerlleon upon Usk, was invited to the court of Urien Rheged, at Aberllychwr. He, with Elffin, the son of Urien, being once fishing at sea in a skin coracle, an Irish pirate ship seized him and his coracle, and bore him away towards Ireland; but while the pirates were at the height of their drunken mirth, Taliesin pushed his coracle to the sea, and got into it himself, with a shield in his hand which he found in the ship, and with which he rowed the coracle until it verged the land; but, the waves breaking then in wild foam, he lost his hold on the shield, so that he had no alternative but to be driven at the mercy of the sea, in which state he continued for a short time, when the coracle stuck to the point of a pole in the weir of Gwyddno, Lord of Ceredigion, in Aberdyvi; and in that position he was found, at the ebb, by Gwyddno's fishermen, by whom he was interrogated; and when it was ascertained that he was a bard, and the tutor of Elffin, the son of Urien Rheged, the son of Cynvarch:-'I, too, have a son named Elffin,' said Gwyddno, 'be thou a bard and teacher to him, also, and I will give thee lands in free tenure.' The terms were accepted, and for several successive years he spent his time between the courts of Urien Rheged and Gwyddno, called Gwyddno Garanhir, Lord of the Lowland Cantred; but after the territory of Gwyddno had become overwhelmed by the sea, Taliesin was invited by the Emperor Arthur to his court at Caerlleon upon Usk, where he became highly celebrated for poetic genius and useful, meritorious sciences. After Arthur's death he retired to the estate given to him by Gwyddno, taking Elffin, the son of that prince, under his protection. It was from this account that Thomas, the son of Einion Offeiriad, descended from Gruffydd Gwyr, formed his romance of Taliesin, the son of Cariadwen-Elffin, the son of Goddnou-Rhun, the son of Maelgwn Gwynedd, and the operations of the Cauldron of Ceridwen."
Next follows the Pedigree of Taliesin, Chief of the Bards, from Thomas Hopkin of Coychurch's manuscript:- "Taliesin, Chief of the Bards of the West, the son of Saint Henwg, of Caerlleon upon Usk, the son of Fflwch, the son of Cynin, the son of Cynvarch, the son of Saint Clydawc, of Ewyas, the son of Gwynnar, the son of Caid, the son of Cadren, the son of Cynan, the son of Cyllin, the son of Caradog, the son of Bran, the son of Llyr Llediaith, King Paramount of all the Kings of Britain, and King, in lineal descent, of the country between the rivers Wye and Towy. Taliesin became Chief Bard of the West, from having been appointed to preside over the chair of the Round Table, at Caerlleon upon Usk."
A manuscript once in the Havod Uchtryd collection gives the following particulars:-"Taliesin, Chief of the Bards of the West, the son of Henwg the Bard, of the College of Saint Cadocus, the son of Fflwch Lawdrwm, of Caerlleon upon Usk, in Glamorgan, the son of Cynvar, the son of Saint Clydog, the son of Gwynnar, the son of Cadrain, the son of Cynan, the son of Caradog, the son of Bran the Blessed, the son of Llyr Llediaith.
"Taliesin, Chief of the Bards, erected the church of Llanhenwg, at Caerlleon upon Usk, which he dedicated to the memory of his father, called Saint Henwg, who went to Rome on a mission to Constantine the Blessed, requesting that he would send Saints Germanus and Lupus to Britain, to strengthen the faith and renew baptism there.
"Taliesin, the son of Henwg, was taken by the wild Irish, who unjustly occupied Gower; but while on board ship, on his way to Ireland, he saw a skin coracle, quite empty, on the surface of the sea, and it came closely to the side of the ship; whereupon Taliesin, taking a skin-covered spar in his hand, leaped into it, and rowed towards land, until he stuck on a pole in the weir of Gwyddno Garanhir; when a young chieftain, named Elphin, seeing him so entangled, delivered him from his peril. This Elphin was taken for the son of Gwyddno, although in reality he was the son of Elivri, his daughter, but by whom was then quite unknown; it was, however, afterwards discovered that Urien Rheged, king of Gower and Aberllychwr, was his father, who introduced him to the court of Arthur, at Caerlleon upon Usk, where his feats, learning, and endowments were found to be so superior that be was created a golden-tongued Knight of the Round Table. After the death of Arthur, Taliesin became Chief Bard to Urien Rheged, at Aberllychwr in Rheged."
Another extract, given in the above volume, is from a manuscript by Llywelyn Sion, of Llangewydd: -"Talhaiarn, the father of Tangwn, presided in the chair of Urien Rheged, at Caer-Gwyroswydd, after the expulsion of the Irish from Gower, Carnwyllion, Cantrev-Bychan, and the Cantred of Iscennen. The said chair was established at Caer-Gwyroswydd, or Ystum Llwynarth, where Urien Rheged was accustomed to hold his national and royal court.
"After the death of Talhaiarn, Taliesin, Chief of the Bards, presided in three chairs, namely: the chair of Caerlleon upon Usk, the chair of Rheged, at Bangor Teivy, under the. patronage of Cedig ab Ceredig, ab Cuneddav Wledig; but he afterwards was invited to the territory of Gwyddnyw, the son of Gwydion, in Arllechwedd, Arvon, where he had lands conferred on him, and where he resided until the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd, when he was dispossessed of that property, for which he pronounced his curse on Maelgwn, and all his possessions; whereupon the Vad Velen came to Rhos, and whoever witnessed it became doomed to certain death. Maelgwn saw the Vad Velen through the keyhole, in Rhos church, and died in consequence. Taliesin, in his old age, returned to Caer-Gwyroswydd, to Riwallon, the son of Urien; after which he visited Cedig, the son of Ceredig, the son of Cunnedav Wledig, where he died, and was buried with high honours, such as should always be shown to a man who ranked among the principal wise men of the Cymric nation; and Taliesin, Chief of the Bards, wag the highest of the most exalted class, either in literature, wisdom, the science of vocal song, or any other attainmeint, whether sacred or profane. Thus terminates the information respecting the chief bards of the chair of Caerlleon upon Usk, called now the chair of Glamorgan."
In another Welsh tradition, Taliesin was once named Gwion Bach and was set to watch over the cauldron of Ceridwen in which was brewed a drink of knowledge and inspiration intended for her son, Morfran or Afagddu. Three drops splashed out onto his fingers which he then thrust into his mouth, in order to cool them - thus did he have access to all knowledge. He was smart enough to know that Ceridwen would be out to get him, so he underwent a series of shape-shifting to avoid her. After several changes, he turned himself into a grain of wheat and she turned into a hen and ate him. He grew in her stomach and was reborn. (The cauldron of knowledge story is also attributed to several other personages including the great Finn MacCumhal of Ireland.)
After her plan had been spoiled, Ceridwen desired to get rid of him, but he had been born of her and being a fertility goddess (wheat/pigs), she put him in a coracle or a leather bag and sent him sailing off down the River Dee. He arrived in Aberdovey where King Elphin the Unfortunate found him on May-Eve at the Salmon Weir and rescued him. The King was struck by the brightness of the baby's forehead and called him Taliesin, meaning Radiant Brow.
Taliesin grew up in Elphin's court and was tutor to Elphin's son, but misfortune befell him and Taliesin was sent packing. He went to Gwynedd and became a bard, putting all others to shame. Some legends have it that that was in the court of King Maelgwn Gwynedd. Others claim that it was the court of King Arthur. Later, Taliesin was associated with another Prince Elphin whose life he saved from the Drowned Hundred, the villages which were submerged when Sienhethryn the Drunkard failed to repair the dikes holding back the ocean. (The legend of Yr Gantref yr Gwaelod - the drowned villages).
The Welsh poem Preiddeu Annwfn states that Taliesin was a companion of Arthur when the latter went to the Otherworld, and one of the seven men who returned from that expedition. He is also supposed to have accompanied Bran Bendegeid in his invasion of Ireland to rescue his sister Rhiannon.
The best personal history conjecture is that he was active in the late sixth century (somewhat earlier than Aneirin). It is probable that Taliesin was educated at the school of the celebrated Cattwg, at Llanveithin, in Glamorgan. He probably came from Powys and the first authentic poem attributed to him was a tribute to Cynan Garwyn, ruler of Powys and father to the Selyf who fell at the battle of Chester in 615. From Powys, he was attracted to the court of Urien, ruler of Rheged, the most prominent of the Northern British kingdoms. Urien was probably active campaigning against Theodoric and Hussa of Northumbria in the period 572 to 592. There has been much speculation as to the location and boundaries of Rheged (from Cumbria to Loch Lomond and perhaps eastwards to Catterick) but northern Cumberland seems most likely.
Another Taliesin poem is for Gwallawg ap Lleennawg , ruler of Elmet, another North British kingdom centered on Leeds. Gwallawg was the father of the Ceredic (Cerdic) expelled from his kingdom by Edwin of Deira in the early seventh century. This lends additional credibility to the placing of the historical personage in the latter part of the sixth century.
The twelve poems attributed to Taliesin are published as "Canu Taliesin" by the University of Wales Press with extensive notes and introduction by Sir Ifor Williams. The same poems are published by the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies (DIAS) as "The Poems of Taliesin" with the introduction and notes translated into English by J. E. Caerwyn Williams. An edition of the poems in the original orthography, with accompanying verse translations into English by Meirion Pennar, is published by Llanerch Press. In the opinion of the most judicious critics the poems about Urien Rheged and his son Owein are undoubtedly genuine. They certainly contain passages of brilliance, and are far superior to many of the other compositions attributed to him, of which some rest on very questionable authority, and some are evidently Middle Age productions. Indeed, the last of the poems translated in the text bears in some MSS. the name of Ionas Athraw o Fynyw.
The various poems recited in the Tale of Taliesin appear to have been composed at different periods, and it is not improbable that Thomas ab Einion Offeiriad collected the poems attributed to Taliesin, which were in existence before his time, and added others to form the Mabinogi, and the very numerous transformations stated in the poetry, but not given in the prose, must have been much more complete than in its present state.
The name of Taliesin is commemorated in the Triads: -"The three Baptismal Bards of the Isle of Britain:-Merddin Emrys, Taliesin, Chief of Bards, and Merddin, son of Madoc Morvryn." -Tr. 125. This Triad is more fully explained in an extract from MS. Triads of the Round Table, given in the Iolo MSS., p. 468.: - "The Nine Impulsive Stocks of the Baptismal Bards of Britain. The three primitive baptismal bards of the Cambro-Britons: Madog, the son of Morvryn, of Caerlleon upon Usk; Taliesin, the son of Saint Henwg, of Caerlleon upon Usk; and Merddin Emrys, of Maesaleg, in Glywysyg; after whom came Saint Talhaiarn, the father of Tangwyn, Merddin, the son of Madog Morvryn, and Meugant Hen, of Caerlleon upon Usk; who were succeeded by Balchnoe, the bard of Teilo, at Llandaff; Saint Cattwg; and Cynddylan, the bard. These nine were called the Impulsive Stocks of the baptismal bards of Britain; Taliesin being their chair-president; for which reason he was designated Taliesin, Chief Bard of the West. They are likewise called the nine super-institutionists of the baptismal chair; and no institution is deemed permanent unless renewed triennially, till the end of thrice three, or nine years. The institution was also called the Chair of the Round Table, under the superior privileges of which Gildas, the prophet, and Saint Cattwg the Wise, of Lancarvan, were bards; and also Llywarch Hen, the son of Elidr Lydanwyn, Ystudvach, the bard, and Ystyphan, the bard of Teilo."
Tradition has handed down a Cairn near Aberystwyth as the grave of Taliesin, the locality of which agrees with the foregoing account. "At one of the meetings of the Cambrian Archaeological Association this Cairn was visited. It contains a Cistvaen, eight feet long by two feet six wide, and about three feet deep, composed of rude slabs of stone. One of the top stones, which lies near it, measures five feet nine by three feet nine. The Cairn was opened over sixty years ago, and the cistvaen then contained some earth of a different color to that of the adjoining soil."
In the medieval period, another Taliesin wrote, using the name as his bardic pseudonym and many poems attributed to the sixth century Taliesin are in fact the medieval Taliesin's. However, in myth the two have been subsumed into one and the attributes of both are given to the earlier Taliesin.
Some of the Poems Attributed to Taliesin