Taliesin, royal bard and spiritual master

Taliesin, the Shakespeare of his day. Taliesin, Britain’s best-known, best-loved person in the sixth century. Taliesin, almost the last of the Druids, for their honour, status and influence was being destroyed by the Christian ascendancy before his eyes, and he left no successor. Taliesin, almost unknown today save to literature-loving Welsh speakers and us few long in pursuit of knowledge of sixth century Britain.

Two strands wrap around the figure of Taliesin like a caduceus: poems; and magical myth. Taliesin was a bard; more specifically a “primary bard”, meaning – in the culture of sixth century Britons – a composer of original poetry, who also set it to music, and at royal diplomatic banquets sang it, accompanying himself on the harp, to the king in whose service he was dedicated, with a duty to lionise his king’s conquests. More than a mere poet laureate, he was the king’s spiritual adviser; with power, in special circumstances, to command his actions.

And not just a bard but the bard: Taliesin won the title “chief bard of Britain”.

He was also, esoterically, a master yogi. The name, or rather title, ‘Taliesin’ can be translated “radiant brow”, but its inner meaning is that his wisdom eye (which is between the eye brows) is radiant with Christ (iesin, like Iesus) Consciousness.

Some of his poems survive, and have been translated into English too. 200 years after his time, many were written down, probably in the scriptoria of Christian monks; and naturally in the orthography of the scribe’s time – which provides latitude for scholarly assertions of inauthenticity, for some scholars would have us believe that the date of writing is the date of composition.

Poppycock. The culture at the kaer (castle, fort, royal residence) of sixth-century kings in Britain was oral. Taliesin composed and memorised his poems; likewise any “secondary bard”, a bard who would re-cant those poems later, learned them by heart. Memory, not writing, was the means by which culture was transmitted in early-medieval Celtic Britain; much wisdom in that, in an age before printing or paper when the means of writing was expensive and written documents could only be copied laboriously one copy at a time in longhand, and therefore were easy to forge, to doctor, to accidentally miscopy, and also all too easy to destroy through fire, acts of war, or casual indifference. Taliesin’s poems will have been passed down through the generations by secondary bards, their rhythms, alliterations and part-repeated lines facilitating their memorisation.

True, not everything attributed to Taliesin is his. Other poems were written in later centuries in his name by people who it seems were accepted as belonging to his school. But there are poems extant only in sixteenth century form whose genuineness is more credible than some that betray evidence of ninth century orthography. I consider the content and style, and the inner meaning, to be more reliable guides to the authenticity of a ‘Taliesin’ poem than the apparent date it was first written down.


The magical story of Taliesin – Hanes Taliesin – begins with the goddess Ceridwen stirring her Cauldron over her cooking fire. Ceridwen is the triple-goddess in her form as elder or ‘crone’. Her Cauldron is the source of everything, for she is God in the aspect of Creator.[1] At this point, the Cauldron is the source of poetic inspiration (awen in Welsh) and of all wisdom and knowledge. She has her son Gwion Bach (which might be translated “Little Man-ling”) stir and watch the pot. Accidentally, three drops fall from the Cauldron onto Gwion’s thumb, and he sucks his thumb. With this act he becomes filled with all knowledge – and, seeing danger ahead for himself, scurries.

There follows a magic hunt, in which Ceridwen chases Gwion, Gwion shape-shifts into a hare, then an otter, then a bird, and Ceridwen shape-shifts in pursuit. Gwion then becomes an ear of grain and Ceridwen turns herself into a hen and eats him. The symbolic meaning is fairly transparent: Gwion, archetypal Human Person, acquiring a little wisdom, flees from fire (the cauldron) via earth (hare), water (otter) and air (bird), all of them changing forms within the great cosmic delusion of Creation (hence, “shape shifting”); but the Divine Mother is in constant pursuit, ever coaxing Her child back to Herself. Eventually, the Human becomes totally humble, submitting himself into a state of being (one grain) in which he can be wholly absorbed into the Divine Consciousness[2]…….

…..and, as often happens in story when grain is a symbol, he is reborn. The Hanes Taliesin tells us that Gwion now spends nine months in the womb of Ceridwen and is then reborn as Taliesin. Ceridwen wills neither to keep him nor to kill him, so she leaves him in a basket by Gwyddno’s royal salmon weir.[3] There he is found by Prince Elffin, son of King Gwyddno Garanhir of Ceredigion.

Elffin is frustrated. He was there, allowed to fish for salmon for the first time in his life, and instead of catching any he caught this darned baby. The baby Taliesin immediately sings Elffin a poem, in which he proclaims himself “loquacious though not yet able to speak” (reminiscent of Krishna’s comparably surprising day-of-birth speech to his father), informs him “I was once little Gwion Bach but now I am Taliesin”, and promises the young prince that he will one day be worth more to him than even as inconceivably big a day’s catch as three hundred salmon.

Surely, what this is describing symbolically is an initiation rite for Elffin. Gwyddno’s title Garanhir – “Crane Legs” reveals that he was a Druidic esoteric initiate; his personal ‘royal salmon weir’ makes sense as an inner means in his consciousness to capture wisdom rather than a convenient barrier across the River Dyfi; and Prince Elffin being allowed to fish there for the first time symbolises the Druids’ secret techniques for developing deepest mystical wisdom being revealed to him at a ritual initiation – a water ‘baptism’[4]. Elffin’s finding there this person who has the supreme state of Christ/Taliesin consciousness, but catching no salmon, expresses, as ever in symbols, that Elffin on the one hand has, as yet, no wisdom of his own, but on the other hand has been given a gift far greater than just the initiation he was expecting: he has been introduced to his Guru – the spiritual master who will lead him to his own Enlightenment ~ notwithstanding the earthly role Elffin must first perform: with Gwyddno’s blessing, Elffin brings Taliesin up as his foster-child.[5]

The Hanes Taliesin legend ‘explains’ Taliesin’s genuine precocious gifts as a bard and spiritual giant.

At this turn, the Hanes Taliesin legend merges into the life of the historical Taliesin, for there is no evidence to contradict the statement that the future Chief Bard of Britain indeed grew up under Elffin’s guardianship at the royal kaer in Aberdyfi.

Taliesin made his first mark on history as a 12-year-old boy, in “The Contention of the Bards”, where he rescued Elffin from prison and knocked off his pedestal the brutal, egotistical, and all-too-real King Maelgwn of Gwynedd[6]. As the best ‘boy outsmarts man’ story since David and Goliath, the Contention of the Bards requires a separate article on this blog.

Since Taliesin accurately prophesies the manner and imminence of Maelgwn’s death, which the Annales Cambriae record as occurring in 548[7], it is fair to date the Contention of the Bards to (more-or-less) 547CE.

By coincidence (for those who believe in coincidence), 547 is also the calculated date of the reference to Taliesin, as a bard ‘coming to prominence’, in a side-note made by some Celt on his copy of a document otherwise comprising a list of the regnal lengths of the first few Anglian kings of Bernicia, a document which was later copied into the Historia Brittonum.

So we have Taliesin’s birth year, give or take a small margin of error: 535. Significantly, the Annales Cambriae date for the death of King Arthur is 538. There is therefore a straightforward explanation for the at first sight odd fact that there is no early legendary enmeshment between Taliesin and King Arthur: the two lived in different regions – Taliesin was to serve in three or four kingdoms, but never in Lindinis – and different time periods.

And Geoffrey of Monmouth never muddied those waters. Taliesin does not appear in Geoffrey’s (so-called) History of the Kings of the Britons.

Taliesin grew up in Ceredigion and maybe spent a few years serving King Elffin there after the Contention as well. Soon enough, though, he emigrated to the much larger kingdom of Powys (to which, indeed, Ceredigion may have had to pay cattle tribute as a ‘client’ kingdom). He became bard to King Brochwel, whom he called “my muse”, and afterwards to his successor King Cynan Garwyn.

Then, probably in the 560s and on Cynan Garwyn’s death, he moved north. One poem in praise of King Gwallawc of Elmet, undisputedly Taliesin’s, has survived, so it may be that his first northern home was Elmet, a kingdom whose capital was York and which included at least the old West Riding of Yorkshire, and maybe also across to the coast around Scarborough and southwards to Derby.

Long-term, though, his home was to be Rheged, a kingdom which comprised SW Scotland, Cumbria, and NW Yorkshire. He could well have lived over two decades in Rheged, as court bard to King Urien. The largest number of poems undisputedly his are those celebrating Urien: as for example victor in a Battle of Wensleydale (ystrad gwen), and as Lord of Catraeth (seemingly a major conquest of his off another king). Celebrating Urien’s lordship, he refers to the delights below his Catraeth kaer of doleu defwy, the Swale’s meanders; the Swale’s loop and twists by Reeth fit the description, as of course does the name Reeth; and the complex site on the hillside a mile to the SW of those meanders, called Maiden Castle, was any or all of kaer, metalworkers’ town, shrine, and fort. Brigantes Nation[8] has identified seven dykes which defended Maiden Castle in addition to its own ramparts, mostly from the east but also two on High Harker Hill to protect it from attack from above.

A story of Urien’s death tells of his being killed by a rival on his own side while besieging Lindisfarne in 590. This is difficult to believe as there was nothing on Lindisfarne at that date. Besides, if it had been so, cultural custom means there would be a Taliesin lament in Urien’s honour. The date, 590, is more credible than the supposed manner of death.

The last reference to Taliesin as a living person is by Aneirin in about 594. In his famous poem Y Gododdin, the phrase ‘Taliesin understands’ implies that he was still alive. Perhaps he died shortly after that disaster at Catraeth, at the – for the times ripe old age of – about sixty. Ceredigion tradition says he was buried at bedd Taliesin, near the coast road south of Machynlleth. The site lacks evidence of any sixth-century burial; Ceredigion, though, is undoubtedly where in the imagination a memorial to Taliesin most properly belongs.


[1] She is also the patron goddess of Cirencester, Caer Ceri, the capital of the Province of Britannia Prima in the fourth and fifth centuries which comprised Wales, the South-West peninsula, and western parts of the Midlands.

[2] There are parallels with the Garden of Eden story and, more directly, with the similar (but less masked) allegorical story of the poem Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson.

[3] Salmon is a symbol of wisdom in the culture of sixth-century Britain. Salmon seasonally swim upstream against the current; this, for the Druids, was a neat outer symbol for the need of the spiritually advancing initiate to reverse the normally downward flow of chi (subtle life energy) in the body and cause it to flow upwards towards the higher chakras in the brain.

[4] The Welsh word for baptism, bedyd, meant initiation before the Christians adapted it.

[5] There is also a myth cycle featuring Gwyddno and Elffin set in Gwaelod, a supposed district of Ceredigion. Its hero is Seithenyn, an outwardly foolish, esoterically wise, servant of King Gwyddno. I intend to write a commentary on it here in due course.

[6] The earliest spelling of the name of this king is Mailcun, but he is nowadays usually referred to by the later name-form Maelgwn.

[7] On my calibration: see my post here on calibrating the Annales Cambriae, 21st September 2013

[8] A group interested in northern England’s Celtic past. http://www.brigantesnation.com/SiteResearch/Iron%20Age/BattleofReeth/BattleofReeth.htm