The life of Taliesin the bard

Taliesin is believed to have lived between 534 and 599. He was chief bard in the courts of at least three kings of Britain, and is associated with the Book of Taliesin, a text from the 10th century containing his poems.

The life of Taliesin was mythologised in the mid 16th century by Elis Gruffydd, whose account drew from Celtic folklore and existing oral tradition.

According to this mythologised version, the bard begins life as Gwion Bach, a servant boy on the shores of Bala Lake, where the giant Tegid Foel and his witch wife Ceridwen live.

Tegid and Ceridwen also have a beautiful daughter, Crearwy, and a son, Morfran, who is so ugly and stupid no magic can cure him.

Ceridwen brews a potion to make him handsome and wise, and Gwion Bach is given the job of stirring it in a cauldron over a fire for a year and a day. A blind man, Morda, tends the fire beneath.

According to the legend, the first three drops of the liquid give wisdom; the rest are poisonous. As Gwion stirs the concoction, three drops fall onto him. He instinctively puts his hand to his mouth to stop the burning, instantly gaining great knowledge and wisdom.

Frightened of Ceridwen's reaction, Gwion flees. The potion has given him the ability to change shape, and he turns himself into a rabbit. Ceridwen in turn becomes a dog.

Gwion assumes the shape of a fish and jumps into a river; his mother becomes an otter. Gwion turns into a bird; she becomes a hawk and continues her chase. Finally Gwion becomes a single grain of corn. Ceridwen, assuming the form of a hen, eats him.

After Ceridwen resumes her old shape she finds she is pregnant. She instinctively knows it is Gwion. After the birth, although she has plans to kill him, the child is so beautiful she is unable to. Instead she casts him into the ocean in a large leather bag.

Their Lord they shall praise, Their language they shall keep, Their land they shall lose - Except wild Wales.

The baby is discovered by Elffin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir and the unluckiest prince in Wales' history. Elffin (or Elphin) is given a large estate in his father's kingdom in Mid Wales to rule over, yet almost immediately the sea breaks through the defensive dams and the estate is lost to the sea.

Gwyddno presents his son with the annual salmon catch of the Dovey River in compensation. But when the river keeper draws in his nets there is not a single fish in them - just a large leather bag.

Inside the bag is the reborn Gwion Fach. When Elffin sets eyes on him he is so shocked by the whiteness of the boy's brow he cries out 'tal iesin', meaning 'how radiant his brow is'.

As he rides home with the boy on his horse, the child begins first to speak, then to recite poetry. The poem he recites tells Elffin that Taliesin has been sent to guide him, that he's not only a great poet but also a prophet, and that by using his gifts all Elffin's enemies will be defeated.

Elffin's luck changes thereafter and he prospers in all he does. Taliesin becomes the most famous bard in Britain, foretelling the death of the evil king Maelgwyn Gwynedd at the hands of a 'yellow beast'. Through his poetry he inspires the Celtic warriors of Britain in their struggle against the Saxon invaders.

Towards the end of his life Taliesin makes a famous prophecy about the fate of the British, which has had tremendous significance in contemporary Wales:

Their Lord they shall praise,
Their language they shall keep,
Their land they shall lose -
Except wild Wales.

Chwedlau Myrddin

Ynys Gudd Morgana

Stori Ynys Gudd Morgana

Ewch ar anturiaethau gyda'r cymeriadau yn ein straeon a gemau.

Wales arts

Catrin Dafydd (Image © Catrin Howells)

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