Taliesin: Power and Politics at Court

The legendary poems from the Book of Taliesin provide us with a brief glimpse of the less formal activities of Welsh medieval court bards. Most of these poems are dramatic pieces that were very likely performed by bards and declaimers adopting the dramatic persona of the legendary Taliesin. The differing ages of some of these and other legendary Taliesin poems found in other manuscripts suggest such a practice was popular at least during the few hundred years of the Gogynfeirdd period, if not longer. There are obviously many reasons why these poems were composed, but they can be considered at least partly as material that would have further promoted the essential mystique of the Welsh court bard. As we can see in poems such as ‘Angar Kyfundawt’, possibly composed around the early 1200s, Taliesin is portrayed as the divinely inspired, erudite and magically powerful wise-man who’s own status bolsters that of the ancient order he personifies.

It has been noted by Haycock that this particular version of the Taliesin figure was possibly intended to give some positive spin to the bardic tradition in the wake of accusations concerning its integrity. This may in part have been down to the bad press given to the bards over the years by church men, the 6th century Gildas being one of the earliest, and the 12th century Gerald of Wales who, in his Journey Through Wales, must have caused some discomfort for the bards in describing the babbling and seemingly possessed awenyddion. The use of the Taliesin persona at this time can at least be seen as part of the bardic tradition’s continuing efforts to promote its relevance at the courts of the Welsh princes. The legendary poems in the Book of Taliesin promote the fundamental ideal of the court bard, with the legendary Taliesin’s kaleidoscopic display of learning, wisdom and mystical vision stressing many of the attributes probably held to be important amongst real-life bards working in real-life situations.

So what exactly is it about the Taliesin persona that made it so appealing to bard and audience alike? We find the popularity of the Taliesin myth echoing down the centuries in the form of the Tale of Taliesin; as Ifor Williams commented, this has remained one of the most popular Welsh folk tales for over a thousand years. The reasons for the Taliesin persona’s appeal can perhaps be found in the different strands of political, social and cultural power this archetypal figure mediates. Even though the primary function of this persona was to entertain, through that entertainment it was also a vector for these other influences.

The influences I’ve noted here, the political, social and cultural, clearly overlap, and it should be remembered that in the effervescent moment of performance these strands would not be mediated separately but conveyed as a total effect implied in the whole persona. Neither should we assume that defining such a performance as court theatre means it was of less value than the formal, public ceremonies of praise and eulogy in terms of maintaining a bard’s public authority or ensuring his influence within the wider political sphere. As we find in the works of many great playwrights, apparent frivolity can as easily convey profundity and even revolution. The same should be borne in mind with the Taliesin persona.

We must also bare in mind that the personal authority and mystique of the court bard undertaking such a performance would clearly have a large impact on how it was received, particularly if we consider that some of the legendary Taliesin poems were probably composed and performed by none other than Prydydd y Moch. The real-life status of the court bard would have been essential to the success of any such ‘Taliesin’ performance, as would the audience’s acknowledgement that this was not only good fun, but also a celebration of the cherished bardic ideal. It may also have been considered the embodiment of a venerated and respected ancestor; that is, the performing bard was considered to have evoked the spirit of the historic Taliesin through his characterisation (lines 14 – 16 of ‘Teithi Edmygant’, see bellow: Our generous God / . . . / He wakens the sleeper / He merits a flow [of praise]).

In terms of the political, social and cultural power the Taliesin persona mediated, one example from the Book of Taliesin will serve to illustrate the economy with which this could have been achieved. We find all three kinds of power wielded quite subtly in the poem ‘Teithi Edmygant’ (LPBT, p.370). On the surface, as with many of these poems, the text appears to be quite ambiguous, the meaning inconsistent and apparently confused at times – although as always, a little shift in perspective on the modern reader’s part shows that the text more than likely is complete. The poem includes references to famous ancestors of royal Welsh lineages, those of North and South, and its not immediately clear why these references have been inserted into the regular flow of Taliesin’s boasting. For example, there appears to be a disjoin at the end of this sequence:

Pwy a tal y keinon?
ae Maelgwn o Von?
ae Dyfyd o Aeron?
ae Coel a’e kenawon?
ae Gwrwedw a’e veibon?
Nyt anchward y alon
o Ynyr Wystlon.
Ef kyrch kerdoryon
se syberw Seon.
(LPBT, p.373.)

Who deserves the drink of honour?
Maelgwn from Anglesey?
Or Dyfydd from Aeron?
Or Coel and his hounds?
Or Gwrweddw and his sons?
His enemies do not laugh
because of the hostages [taken by] Ynyr.
Poets make for                                                                                                                                       one in (Caer) Seon with his proud [word-]sowing.

By locating the performance of this poem before a court of Welsh nobles, it may be possible to divine a reason for this apparently confused section of the poem. Marged Haycock, the poem’s editor, suggests two possible scenarios:

“The question arrises as to what occasion might suit a performance of a piece like this which has so many varied elements. One possibility is that it was performed ‘in the story’ – i.e. imagined to be happening at the court of Maelgwn at Degannwy on the occasion when he was receiving visitors. Another is that the mask or persona of Taliesin was used in a real-life setting, not just to provide entertainment, but to foster solidarity in a gathering of representatives from different kingdoms, or satellite regions. Diplomatic flattery could well have turned to the doings of fifth- and sixth century heroic worthies.” (LPBT.371)

In both contexts mentioned here by Haycock, we can assume the poem was declaimed on the occasion of worthies visiting the court, either real or imaginary. Further to that, we can also assume that as with most poetry from this period there will be an element of idealising. It was probably understood by the audience that one of the bard’s traditional roles was to judge the aristocratic community according to noble ideals, a role implicit in the Taliesin figure since the earliest praises of Cynan and Urien. If we interpret the above excerpt with reference to these possible subtexts we may be able to make some sense of the change in direction it contains.

At the beginning of the excerpt the bard playing Taliesin asks ‘who is worthy of the drink of honour?’, that is a symbolic way of asking ‘who is worthy of the dignity and honour provided by this court through its ceremonies?’ In response to this apparent challenge, a list of famous ancestors, or ideal heroes, is offered. The suggestion is that these heroes would be more than worthy of the keinon, the drink of honour. At the end of the list we then have the couplet ‘his enemies do not laugh / because Ynyr took hostages’ – Ynyr more than likely being one of the early kings of Gwent in South East Wales. Even though the couplet names him specifically, the poem could be suggesting generally that the one who is worthy of the honour of the court is one who is also fortunate enough to have enemies that were oppressed (‘his enemies do not laugh’) because of the actions of his ancestors (‘because Ynyr took hostages’). Ynyr does not need to be an actual ancestor, just a famous example of a hero who served his descendants by being a violent oppressor of his and their enemies. The taking of hostages meant that the weaker force (the English here) wished to forgo any violent conflict and instead opted to surrender hostages to the superior force (the Welsh).

What would be the implications of such a suggestion in the context of a medieval court? Even though its clearly impossible to say either way exactly what the social ceremonies of the day were, its likely drink – probably mead – had something to do with it, as suggested by the formal term keinyon, that is ‘the first drink’ or ‘the honour drink’, found in Welsh law text as well as poetry. Before listening to a performance of this particular poem, did noble members of the audience take part in a public ceremony where they received a drink from the king of the court, as a public sign of his welcome and hospitality and their loyalty? That would make these few lines quoted above quite relevant if ever performed in such a context. Metaphorically, the bard playing Taliesin would have asked – “You noblemen, you descendants of famous ancestors, you who are indebted to them for making you noble, are you worthy of this court’s ceremony?” Even though the poem doesn’t state this explicitly, by locating it in such a context it becomes a possible reading.

If we come now to the apparent turn in meaning in the last couplet, we find here another of Taliesin’s boasts, possibly inserted to give a kick of authority to the challenge implied above; only he, famous and honoured as he is, has the authority (and gall) to suggest the present nobility should compare themselves to their famous ancestors to see if they are laking in any way. The apparent change in direction here is instead read as a statement qualifying Taliesin’s authority in posing the challenge, stressing his traditional position as one who ‘judges men of heart’. Either way, whichever of these various contexts we wish to stress, the poem makes an indirect reference to the audience. The final responsibility of answering the challenge implied by Taliesin rests with them. If so, this is not simply a rhetorical device, but an invitation for the audience to engage with the heroic ideals the bardic tradition was so keen on promoting, mediated here by the legendary persona of their most entertaining spokesman.





The Taliesin Tradition courses

I’m beginning a new online course this April called The Taliesin Tradition. It covers almost 1500 years of material, from the earliest Welsh poetry by the historic Taliesin, through to the mythic Taliesin and the poems attributed to him in The Book of Taliesin. We will track the development of the Taliesin myth and how it was used by the medieval bards to inform their own myth making. It will also touch briefly on the Taliesin tradition today and its presence in modern culture.

Its a similar format to the Symbolic Keys, only that I’ve extended the length of the sessions to 2 hours. For more information please visit the course page.

I’m also running a short 4 week version of the course in Tre’r Ddol (next door to Tre Taliesin) and Machynlleth. The course begins March 20th in Machynlleth and March 25th in Tre’r Ddol. Please see the fliers bellow for details:

Taliesin Tre’r Ddol seminars

Taliesin Mach seminars

A slightly extended version of the Symbolic Keys online course will also run beginning Sunday April 20th.

Bedd Taliesin (Taliesin’s Grave) part 3

So what of the name ‘Cae’r Arglwyddes’, ‘The Lady’s Field’? After some digging around in the National Library and County Archive, I still haven’t been able to discover who this Lady is. There is no record of a church here so it’s unlikely to be St Mary. It could refer to a now forgotten noble woman, but usually an owners personal name is preserved in place names. All became clear when I had a conversation with an old lady who’s father had been born at Cae’r Arglwyddes, and according to her the name of the farm refers to a ‘lady of the lake’ folktale about the small lake up on Moel-y-llyn. Such tales are common throughout Wales, and feature an otherworldly woman who comes out of the lake, usually followed by an abundance of farm animals. These otherworldly women are more than likely late versions of earlier water deities, fairy women with magical powers. Is there an otherworldly ‘Lady’ associated with Taliesin and the rights of the dead?

If the ancient processional way of Y Sarn Ddu between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin corresponds in some way with the mythical bard’s life-journey, this could offer an explanation as to who this Lady is. In the tale, Ceridwen stands between Gwion and Taliesin, and directly between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin is Cae’r Arglwyddes. Is this where Ceridwen chases the magically enlightened Gwion Bach? Was it here that she swallowed him in the guise of a large black hen and then gave birth to him as the beautiful infant Taliesin? Is this the place of his symbolic death and rebirth? If so, was it the River Cletwr that she set him adrift upon, carrying him down through the vulva-like ravines of Gwar-y-Cwm waterfalls before spilling into the Dyfi? It would make sense if he was then washed up on Borth beach.

Bedd Taliesin (Taliesin’s Grave) part 2

Not all of the ancient monuments in the Cletwr Valley have been marked on the OS map – the valley itself and the surrounding landscape is littered with what were probably covered mounds at one time, many of which are in fields around the old farm called Cae’r Arglwyddes, which means ‘The Lady’s Field’. Heading east up the Sarn Ddu (the ‘Black Road’ discussed in the previous post) from Bedd Taliesin there can be seen many suspicious piles of stones on either side of the road, including many fallen standing stones, several of which clearly mark the old way. Was Cae’r Arglwyddes once the sight of a complex of intact burial mounds through which the Sarn Ddu passed as a processional road?

Pillaged stones are clearly seen supporting the southern bank of the road, and there is a line of large boulders further along just before Cae’r Arglwyddes farm house. All of the stone piles in the valley contain large quartz stones, just like the ones that cap the cairn that overlooks the Black Road from the top of Moel-y-Llyn and that kerb the cairns over on Foel Goch on the northern side of the valley.

If the Cletwr Valley once contained many obvious burial mounds, it could give one explanation to what the name ‘Y Sarn Ddu’ is referring to. It’s easy to see how black has an almost universal association with death, especially in Europe, and probably has done so for a very long time. Y Sarn Ddu may preserve the connotation of a Death Road or a Road of the Dead. The fact that this name still survives suggests that its processional use, or at least its association with burial and death, may have continued into the early medieval period.

Bedd Taliesin (Taliesin’s Grave) part 1

Place names and monuments close to Bedd Taliesin, the bronze age cairn in the Cletwr Valley, could throw a little light on why it bears the name of a popular Welsh folk hero. It’s impossible to tell whether this was originally the grave of the historic Taliesin, chief bard to Urien Rheged, although there’s no reason why (no matter how unlikely) he couldn’t have been buried there at a later date. Such ancient cairns were used time and again throughout long periods of time. But whether or not the historic Taliesin is buried in this ancient monument is of less importance than its association with the legendary figure that the famous Cynfardd became: the accidental child of Ceridwen, the reborn Gwion Bach and bard to the hapless Elffin.

The cairn itself is situated in a place called Pen y Sarn Ddu, or ‘End of the Black Road’, a name still retained by the old farm next to the cairn. It would be easy to assume that this name refers to the old ‘Roman’ road, or Sarn Helen, that runs past the farm following the coastal highland from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth. But that ancient highway doesn’t end at Bedd Taliesin, so why call it the ‘End of the Black Road’?

It’s more likely that the farm’s name refers to the old track that runs at right angles to the Roman road, following the Cletwr Valley east towards Moel-y-Llyn. So if this is the ‘End of the Black Road’, where is its beginning? The present track runs along the south side of the valley through Cae’r Arglwyddes Farm and due east up the slope of Moel-y-Llyn through the pass into the Einion Valley. If the Black Road originally followed a similar path, we can see it takes a straight line from Bedd Taliesin, through Cae’r Arglwyddes Farm to the pass into the Einion Valley. If we extend that straight line down the other side of Moel-y-Llyn we come to a small farmstead called Bronwion, or ‘Gwion’s Hill’. Is this where the Black Road begins?

Bedd Taliesin Map

Awena album available for download

Awena is a collection of recent folk songs with a few older tracks thrown in for good measure. As some folks have asked for translations of some of these songs, I’ve put together an accompanying booklet with some images.  The album is available to download from my music website on this page. cover You can also listen to some of the songs here: