Taliesin

Taliesin
Taliesin is certainly mentioned in various sources from the early medieval period. Nennis wrote an early 'Historia Brittonum' in the 8th century and makes a reference to 'T. chief of the Bards'. Some scholars have suggested this could refer to Taliesin. However the difficulty here is he is not named in person. This chief bard is linked to other historical figures from the period in the 6th century. One of which is Maelgwn whom one presumes may need no introduction. However this chief bard is also linked to other poets by Nennis of the 6th century. Such as Llechwch Hen and etc.

There is also the Anglo Saxon chronicle that places him in the North within this period at the time of Ida who founded Bernicia 550 AD (mid 6th century). That is according to Prof. Mary Williams this being an opinion held 70 years ago. Having rechecked the translation of the chronicle for this period, it becomes difficult to make the same connection. Once again Taliesin is not named however it's generally recognised that Ida was the founder of this territory that is now part of Northumbria, on the NE coast of England today.

Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions Taliesin and introduces a dialogue with Merlin in his Vita Merlin. Interestingly there is also a mention of a dialogue in the Black Book of Caermarthen between Taliesin and Ugnach ap Mydno. Considering this book derives from the Black Cannons priory near Carmarthen in the 12th Century; whether its Geoffrey source is a pure conjecture. Geoffrey wrote various titles in the 12th century, although often considered a Bretton Monk. In all probability he is likely to have been connected to the bretton/welsh comunity in south wales.

There is another reference to Taliesin from the Channel Islands just of the coast of France. The work is by a French Poet named Wace, who wrote a book called 'Roman de Brut'. In this Taliesin is portrayed as a magician at the time of Augustus Caesar. He too exercised his prowess and powers by prophesying the coming of Christ! . The book also dates to the 12th century, and the dedication in his work is to Eleanor of Aquatane the wife of Henry II. In turn one understands that Henry II commissioned the early writing and version of the Arthurian Legends.

Recent writers and scholar A.O.H. Jarman, suggests and places Taliesin as a pupil of Gildas, He is an early Christian monk originally from the north who wrote the 'Ruin of Britain'. In this Taliesin is not mentioned nor did he speak kindly of king Maelgwn of Gwynedd. Although he and Maelgyn is often associated together through tradition with Elphin. In this case Maelgwn is described as being a tyrant by Gildas. Again Geoffrey of Monmouth could influence this through the dialogue connecting Taliesin to the north and the incident with Merlin in the forest after the battle may well be connected.

So there you go that is about the extent of the early historical information one is aware of with some taint of tradition concerning Taliesin. It too does not help when one is trying to answer this question of whether Taliesin is a real person. On these biases, one is likely to say there is inconclusive evidence available to suggest he was a real person. However it doesn't rule out that Taliesin wasn't real neither. What becomes clear is that oral memory of an important individual real or otherwise, has captured people's attention and imagination. In itself this has been enough for it to be recorded and pass down in history and within oral memory of present-day Wales.

So really one cannot answer this question from a historical standpoint. However it is only when the discipline of literature and the poems credited to him has been scrutinises, a picture emerges. The analysis of their contents has generally been taken as prime literature sources of Taliesin, real or otherwise. Yet when these are pieced together they may suggest Taliesin was a real person. As poets recorded and patronised the exploits of real people within the courts they served. Moreover the progress within the area once known as the 'Dark Ages' is become clearer historically, in which Taliesin is connected. The study of the 'Early Medieval Period' within history is both developing and validating the previous unknown areas. Generally most literature scholars accept Taliesin was a real person from the 6th century. Yet historically it is dubious as this discipline relies on evidence within its documentation.

The historian is likely to see the development of a tradition coming together through documentation over the years. Specifically from the early 1300's onwards, Taliesin story then becomes historically created towards the knowledge and tradition which is evident today. However such knowledge in specific cases derives from written oral tradition which later become written manuscripts.

Bedd taliesn or Taliesin Grave is associated with Ceredigion. The grave has traditional association to Taliesin while its association has also been attributed to a nearby village there today. This is Tre Taliesin when translated the village becomes the city of Taliesin. The area had a township there in the 17th century. Tradition associated with the grave suggests if one stayed through the night there, one would either be a poet or very disarranged by morning. But this is not unique by far nor specific to this grave, as identical traditions apply to other places within Wales. The same events is aid to befall an individual after a night, when staying at these too.

Yet if one takes an archaeological point of view, then the grave is simply a Bronze Age burial cyst. The site is situated on high ground above Tre Taliesin. Any traditional associations would become dismissed due to the evidence uncovered from it. Yet from a literature stance, Taliesin tradition association to the area is strong. However a poem named 'Stanza of the Graves' which informs about the various resting place of important people from the past. One understands at present that Taliesin is not buried at this location.

The poems attributed to Taliesin over the years, has also received a large amount of scrutiny by scholars of both literature and linguistics. This in turn has slowly whittled them down to about twelve and under, depending on who one reads. Moreover, the acceptance of Taliesin as a real person from the 6th century has generally given on the assumption that six poems are from that period. However no scholar that one is aware of has stated that they are from that period, being the 6th century. But the poems addressed to historical figures of the period and the lingustics added together presents a strong argument.

This then brings one back to the first question, concerning whether Taliesin is a real person. The poems then indicate over time there has either been many bards who have held the title of Taliesin. This is indicated through time due to the styles used in the recorded poetry. Subsequent various linguistic and poetic changes displayed within the poems attributed to Taliesin by name. In turn has generated suggestions by scholars that Taliesin is now a hereditary title. This then would be passed through tradition from one Chief Bard to another.

Historically this cannot be validated, the early laws of neither Hwyel Dda in the 10th century, nor those that exist later give any indication of the title of Taliesin being passed on or a hereditary tiltle. The laws of Hywel clearly describes the Chief Bard title as a 'pencredd', in turn other law codes follow this stance. Nonetheless Hywel laws lays down the privileges and the position held by a pencredd; along with the protocol and behaviour expected when in the presence of the Kings and in its hall or court. Therefore the chief bard from this time would appear not to have held the hereditary title of Taliesin.

There are many theories which places Taliesin in various locations; some say its Powys in Northeast Wales; while others as we have seen through the grave attributed to him, suggest its Ceredigion. Indeed early antiquarians from the 18th and 19th century would likely go for the latter. The coastline around this particular area above Aberwystyth links oral traditions with the stories within the literature of Taliesin. Indeed such tradition is also present right into the 1800's at Aberwystyth although its suggests Christian additions.

Generally it's the literature specifically within the poetry which gives an indication of where he lived. Therefore it has been indicated that Taliesin was a native of Powys where he is associated with the court of Cynan Gaewyn. Yet Taliesin also served in the court of Urien in Rheged in northwest England in the 6th century. In turn there is a further hypothesis has been argued., concerning the the battle of Catterick, recorded in the 'Y Gododdin' after which the poets moved into Wales from the north. This is when Llechwch Hen for instance has a large corpus of tradition also entered and associated him to Powys. This is turn may push Taliesin further to the west and into Ceredigion thus. Superseding associations with Taliesin. Whether Taliesin and the legend of Llyn Tegid or Lake Bala have contributed to this association with Powys through tradition is also a consideration which needs to be taken in account.

Turning to the ideal of Taliesin being the name is a hereditary title, it would indicate that a chief bard who held the title and recognised as Taliesin at one time might of been resident in the area. Another point is the Hywel Dda laws date from the 10th century, 500 years later than the period attributed to Taliesin. So perhaps a change had occured in tradtion by then. Afterall tradition might be seen as dynamic where it changes and develop with each generation. Yet such memory therefore would be orally recorded and passed down. prior to the written word becoming held in higher esteen. If one places this aside for a moment there is another consideration. This deals with an area of land termed as a 'gwely' in Welsh. Scholars have indicated these are often named after the founding lineage from the head family who establishes the area, and its community. Those members who resided in the gwely claimed a linear decent from its founder. Additionally such a gwely existed in medieval times, which held the name of Taliesin in southern Ceredigion, near the river Tefi. Yet whether there is a relationship to the 6th century Taliesin becomes a conjecture due to lack of written records.

Finally a piece of recorded poetic mysticism attributed to Taliesin: -

"Majestic Knowledge! Whence has it been imparted?
Knoweth thou what raised the mountain before making the earth habitable?
Who is the sponsor of life? Whence is the stroke of extinction?
Who knows it? Whence is the light of countenance?
What brings the sparkle out of polished stones?
What lies hidden in a flashing ruby and in the foam of the sea?
When the night retrieves, what wanton effulgence there is in the golden flood of day!
Now does any know, why the Sun's breast is crimsoned in pigment so perfect?
If it be fingers that fashioned me, the hollow of the hand will shield me. Heaven's lineage shall not be abased."
Taliesen Mysticism translated by Dr J. G. Evans, from the Book of Taliesin.published in Llanbedrog 1910 who further comments:-

"The visions to them are the true reality. They are on a quest for Truth of the hidden treasure of the Holy Grail".

The Taliesin manuscript, Peniarth 2, dated to c.1400 derives either from South, or Mid Wales but scholars consider the original B classified Ms to be an incomplete record. Whether he is a real individual or a honourable title held or bestowed to a pencredd of its previous period is an arguable point. Yet, any poetic delivery has its theatre of sound which rises and falls on the waves of the sea. The household tulu drinks the foam with every draft. As the mead ripples within its goblet when placed on the table in its silent mead hall. Poetic waves awash from wall to wall and up into the rafters.

Original Apr 23, 2004

Last updated April 23, 2005