Also: Talyesin, Talyessin, Taliessin, Thelgesinus

from Tâlyessin:
tâl: brow
yessin: shining

"As soon as Elphin saw the forehead, he said, 'behold the radiant forehead!' (i.e. tal iesin)."
--Ystoria Taliesin, 16th C.

The figure of Taliesin is a complex one, as it seems to encompass both a god and a sixth century bard, both of whom seem to have been combined into one figure. He is the ultimate bard in Welsh myth and legend, and his story of transformation is one of the great Celtic tales.

The first written reference to Taliesin is found in Nennius' Historia Brittonum, from the ninth century:

§62. ...At that time, Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry. The great king, Mailcun, reigned among the Britons, i.e. in the district of Guenedota[.]
Here we see reference to Taliesin, Aneirin, and Talhaiarn, placed in the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd, which is later corroborated in the Hanes Taliesin. As Maelgwn is said to have died in 547, this puts Taliesin squarely in the middle part of the sixth century. At this time, Urien of Rheged is also said to have lived (ca. 530-590), and thus the hypothesis that Taliesin served as bard to Urien (as is demonstraited by the poems in the Llyfr Taliesin) would also fit into this time scheme. It would also locate much of the historical Taliesin's life in Northern Britain and North Wales.

This historical Taliesin, it is thought, was probably born in Powys, as demonstrated by the poems to Cynan Garwyn king of Powys (also of this time period). Based on the content of the LT, it is thought that later he went to the court of Urien of Rheged in the north; many of the poems in the LT are praise poems to Urien and his son Owein (the Uriens and Yvain of Arthurian Romance). It is typical for these particular poems to end with

And until I fail in old age,
In the sore necessity of death,
May I not be smiling,
If I praise not Urien.
which lends credence to at least one of the Taliesins to have been a bard of Urien.

The History of Taliesin, in which we encounter the godlike figure, places his birth during the time of King Arthur, at Llyn Tegid (modern Lake Bala) in Gwynedd. This would agree with a northern home for the historical Taliesin, but this could also be a later interpolation. At any rate, this Taliesin was originally named Gwion Bach. He was a boy recruited to stir the magic cauldron of inspiration, belonging to the witch Cerridwen. In this cauldron was a potion that would make Cerridwen's son Afagddu into the wisest man in Britian; unfortunately, three drops splattered out while Gwion was stirring it, and he instinctually stuck them in his mouth. These were the three drops of awen, which resulted in Gwion's enlightenment. Upon learing this, Cerridwen pursues him; they go through numerous shapeshifting phases, until finally he is a grain of corn and she is a hen who eats him. This impregnates Cerridwen, who gives birth to the boy and sets him out to sea. He is then found by Elphin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, who raises the boy and names him "Taliesin" for the radient brow the infant posesses. The infant is preternaturally gifted, able to speak at birth, and at thirteen is able to win a contest against Maelgwn's bards.

The early portion, wherein his awen is gained from Cerridwen's cauldron, is also seen in the Llyfr Taliesin:

I will address my Lord,
To consider the Awen.
What brought necessity
Before the time of Cerridwen.
The Childhood Achievements of Taliesin

Shall not my chair be defended from the cauldron of Cerridwen?
May my tongue be free in the sanctuary of the praise of Gogyrwen.
Song Before the Sons of Lly

There will be a slaughter, let there be the speech of Avagddu.
The Hostile Confederacy

While the subject of his delivering of Elphin from prison is also explored in the poems:

I am Taliesin,
I will delineate the true lineage
Continuing until the end,
In the pattern of Elphin.
The Hostile Confederacy

A task deep (and) pure
To liberate Elphin.
The Chair of the Sovereign

There is even the rather curious two stanzas in the Black Book of Carmarthen's "Stanzas of the Graves" which would seem to indicate that it originally was penned as if by Taliesin:

Truly did Elffin bring me
To try my primitive bardic lore
Over a chieftain--
The grave of Rwvawn with the imperious aspect.

This is not the only poem connected to Taliesin in that manuscript; a portion of "Tenby" is also there, as well as a poem called "The Dialogue of Taliesin and Ugnach".

Then there is the mythical history of Taliesin given in the Llyfr Taliesin, wherein he claims relationships with Pryderi, Pwyll, Gwydion, Math, and Lleu--all different and at times opposed figures in Welsh mythology. A small--and I do mean small--example of mythological persons in the Llyfr Taliesin shows the following:

I was enchanted by Math,
Before I became immortal,
I was enchanted by Gwydyon
The great purifier of the Brython
The Battle of the Trees

I have been in the battle of Godeu, with Lleu and Gwydion,
They changed the form of the elementary trees and sedges.
I have been with Bran in Ireland.
I saw when Morddwydtyllon was killed.
Complete is my chair in Caer Siddi,
No one will be afflicted with disease or old age that may be in it.
Manawyddan and Pryderi know it.
Song Before the Sons of Llyr

Math and Eunyd, skilful with the magic wand, freed the elements.
In the life of Gwydion and Amaethon, there was counsel.
The Death-Song of Aeddon

And then there is his elegy for Dylan eil Ton, Lleu's twin. As for his assocation with Gwydion, Math, and Lleu, it is also interesting to note that in the Latin history of the Breton king St. Iudicael, "Taliosinus bardus filius Donis"--that is, Taliesin the bard, son of Don--appears, having been visiting with St. Gildas (it is interesting to note that in the Vita Merlini, Taliesin is also said to have just returned from Brittany, having studied with Gildas). He acts as a prophet, certainly fitting his mythology. Other figures referenced in the Llyfr Taliesin include Myrddin, Arthur, Arianrhod, Owein ap Urien, and other figures familiar (and some not so familiar) from the Mabinogion and elsewhere.

There is also reference to Taliesin in the Mabinogi, wherein he is listed among the seven survivors of the Battle of Ireland; he is in the company of the Blessed Head of Bendigedfrân, in the story of "Branwen uerch Lyr". This story, when in context of the rest of the Red Book of Hergest, would take place around the end of the first century BCE; thus, we see a Taliesin active some five or six hundred years before the supposed days of Gwion, and it associates him with heroes from southern Wales, not necessarily northern Wales. This could, of course, be an interpolation (there is no other mention of Taliesin in the Four Branches), but it could also point to his god-like status, for the poems of the LT also indicate the belief that Taliesin has lived in many times and incarnations.

The Mythical Taliesin
As a god, Taliesin is similar to Fionn MacCumhill, who gained knowledge from the Salmon of Wisdom. He is a shape-shifter, and is often associated with the Children of Llyr. His original name was Gwion Bach--literally, "Fair Boy"--"Gwion" and "Fionn" are the same name, but in different branches of the Celtic languages. However, upon drinking the magic potion of Cerridwen, he became enlightend--"gained awen" (poetic inspiration), much like Fionn's eating of the salmon of wisdom; both became enlightened by sticking their burning thumbs in their mouths.

The Historical Taliesin
A 6th century bard, possibly from Powes in Wales, but later migrated to Rheged where he became the court bard to Urien of Rheged and friend of Owain (the Arthurian Yvain/Ywein). This Taliesin is said in some manuscripts to have been the son of a St. Henwg and descended of Llyr, and to have raised the church Llanhenwg at Carleon. He is said to have been at the battle of Catterick (The Gododdin), and comforted Merlin/Myrddin at the Battle of Arthuret. His son is said to be variously named Aeddon, Adaon, or Afaon.

In these traditions (preserved in manuscripts which may or may not have been forgeries of Iolo Morgannwg), Taliesin is originally the bard of Urien; as he is out fishing one day with Elffin ap Urien, a storm comes up, and his coricle is washed up on the shore of Gwyddno Garanhir's lands. In another version, he is (like St. Patrick) kidnapped by Irish pirates, but escapes to Gwyddno's kingdom.

The Literary Taliesin
An anonymous scribe who composed poems in the 9th century and took on the persona of both the mythical and historical. From him come the majority of the poems in The Book of Taliesin, dating to the thirteenth century.

The amalgamation of these different Taliesins has also been seen in fantasy literature; in the Prydain Chronicles, Taliesin is Chief Bard of Prydain and leader of the bardic college--much in line with his medieval character. He is the one who gave Fflewddur Fflam the truthful harp, and it was his son Adaon who was killed in The Black Cauldron (book, not film). In Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series, he is bard of Gwyddno Garanhir in The Silver on the Tree. Also called Gwion, he helps Will Stanton and Bran Davies gain the sword Eirias and end the enchantment on Gwyddno and his submerged realm.

To say that Taliesin was a bard is to admit that what we know of the status of "bard" in the sixth and seventh century is very small. Originally, bards were a subset of the druids, the priestly caste of the Celts. As such, they had a religious and social function. What of this function continued into the Christian era is up to debate. Certainly, even in the very late Llyfr Taliesin, which was presumed to have been transcribed at a monestary (Strata Florida is the general supposition), yet the poems are filled with allusions to gods and druids. One doubts that the monks were ignorant of the original role of the bards. However, whether this reflects the role of the historical Taliesin is unknown.

Editions of Taliesin's Poetry

Facsimile & text of the Book of Taliesin. ed., amended, & tr. by J. Gwenogvryn Evans. Llanbedrog (N. Wales) : [s.n.], 1910.

Poems from the Book of Taliesin. ed., amended, & tr. by J. Gwenogvryn Evans. Tremvan, Llanbedrog, N. Wales : [n. p.], 1915.

Skene, W.F. The Four Ancient Books of Wales. Edinburgh, Edmonston and Douglas, 1868.

Williams, Ifor. Canu Taliesin. English version by J. E. Caerwyn Williams. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1968.

-------- Armes Prydein Vawr : the prophecy of Britain from the Book of Taliesin. English version by Rachel Bromwich. Dublin : Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1972.

Other Sources

Anonymous. "De Sancto Iudicaelo rege Historia." trans. John Carey. The Celtic Heroic Age. 2003.

---------. The Mabinogion. trans. and ed. Lady Charlotte Guest. 1848. reprint: London: J.M. Dent. 1932.

Ford, Patrick. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1977.

--------. Ystoria Taliesin. Cardiff: Board of Celtic Studies, UWP, 1991.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Life of Merlin. ed. and trans. Basile Clarke. Cardiff: UWP, 1967.

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Mary Jones © 2004