Roland Barthes’ definition of myth

(extract from the forthcoming audio course, part 1 out in early January 2015)

If, as many scholars have pointed out, The Four Branches of the Mabinogi are derived from an earlier mythology, its probably best to begin with the question: what exactly is a myth? In the Concise Oxford Dictionary, the first meaning given to a myth is

. . . a traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons and embodying popular ideas on natural or social phenomena etc. . . .

What Celtic scholars are usually referring to when they talk of the mythological roots of the Four Branches is the earlier pantheon of Celtic gods and goddesses that many of the characters are derived from. But we can expand on this meaning by also adding that a myth is a way of communicating that implies a particular ideology or ethos. In that sense the term myth can be used to describe much more than just traditional tales about gods or human origins. We find myths in modern books like The Lord of the Rings, in films like Star Wars and Batman; we find them in modern art, television advertisements and magazines. In fact anything within a culture – story, film, object or person, can become the vehicle of myth.

Roland Barthes

Roland Barthes

As the famous French philosopher Roland Barthes said myth is, in its most basic form, a special type of speech.* What he meant was that a myth isn’t just a genre of stories, its a way of saying something. According to Barthes, the special trick of myth is to present an ethos, ideology or set of values as if it were a natural condition of the world, when in fact its no more than another limited, man-made perspective. A myth doesn’t describe the natural state of the world, but expresses the intentions of its teller, be that a storyteller, priest, artist, journalist, filmmaker, designer or politician.

In this course we’re focussing on the myths we find in traditional narratives, medieval stories that are derived from an earlier body of oral material, what could be considered quite traditional examples of myth. But we shouldn’t forget that like any word in a language, the definition of myth evolves. Whereas we often relegate myth to the same category as children’s stories, Barthes argued that myth, or the mythological way of communicating, permeates much of what we could consider to be culture, mass media, advertising and entertainment. What this modern definition has in common with the old definition is that both place belief at the heart of what myth is. But whereas the old definition of myth generally referred to gods or tales of human origins as the focus of belief, the new definition includes any cultural activity that implies an ethos or ideology as the focus of belief, be that secular or religious. If a myth is to be effective it must be believed in by its audience.

Myth as organism

Myth as organism

This also means that the same myth can be expressed through many different mediums. For example Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is a narrative that dominated European culture for a long time. Implied in that narrative is the myth of the saviour and those he saves as well as the idea of good and evil that’s tied up in that relationship. For Christians this myth is believed to be the natural condition of the world, something they take for granted in their everyday lives. Over the millenia, this myth has been expressed through many different mediums: rituals, ceremonies, paintings, poems, drama, oral texts such as prayers and music such as hymns, symphonies and folk songs. The basic myth of the saviour is expressed in all of these many derived practices and works of art. It has become the centre around which all of these unique expressions are positioned.

A related example is how early Christian leaders explored another aspect of the myth of sin and redemption through a different narrative, that of Adam and Eve. For early Cristians such as St Augustine the story of Adam and Eve explained how humainty became sinful and why it needed a redeemer such as Jesus. Eve’s actions in the Garden of Eden were seen as the origin of sin, and because Eve was the symbolic mother of all humainty, all of her descendents therefore inherited that first original sin. For many Christians the doctrine of original sin is a natural condition of the world humans are part of, an ethos that’s presented mythologically in many related works of art such as medieval paintings of Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranch the Elder, 1526

Adam and Eve, by Lucas Cranch the Elder, 1526

As we can see, a myth can sit at the heart of a culture for very long periods of time, becoming a reference point for morality, philosophy, spirituality and art. Another example of this is the Taliesin myth that almost certainly began as a legend about the historic Taliesin who lived in the 6th century. For over 1500 years now Welsh bards and poets have considered him one of the most famous founders of the Welsh tradition. As part of their public performances and rituals, medieval Welsh bards would adopt the dramatic persona of the perfected bard, an echo of the mythical Taliesin. Perhaps as early as the 12th century his tale was being transmitted and adapted through many lineages of the oral tradition, with variations of it migrating throughout Wales. In the legendary poems from the 14th century Book of Taliesin, in this bold and unashamedly self-agrandising poetry we see his legendary persona as the celebrated Welsh wiseman, the archetypal bard.

His fame and popularity gradually grew until by the 16th century Taliesin had evolved into a central symbol of Welsh mythology. In that century the earliest surviving copy of his tale was written down revealing Taliesin to be a symbolic figure that embodied not only the formal bardic ideology, but also beliefs about inspiration, the transmigration of the enlightened soul and the mystic knowledge derived from such an experience. Perhaps because of this native pagan mystique, at various times the figure of Taliesin was also appropriated by the orthodox Christian tradition and given a devoutly religious veneer, expressing sentiments very different to those of his earlier incarnations. In this new context Taliesin became a symbol of Christian virtue, with various prayers and religious poems composed in his name where he humbly acknowledged his sins and need for repentence. This Christian ethos was overlaid upon his more heroic ideology and pagan mystique probably in an attempt to obscure it.

Taliesin in modern pop culture

Taliesin in modern pop culture

Different tellers of a myth, be they renowned bards, literate monks, advertising agencies, modern druids or academics, will use popular figures such as Taliesin to further their own particular ideology or ethos. The same myth can be told or evoked in many different ways, but almost always for the same reason, to promote the myth-maker’s own position. A religious recital always affirms a particular priests power; the Taliesin persona enhances the mystique and authority of a particular bard; the academic thesis will frame the object of study so that it validates the author’s own ideology. All these are ways of indirectly implying a set of values that are to be taken for granted and are therefore mythological ways of communicating.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*Roland Barthes, trans. Howard / Lavers, Mythologies (Hill and Wang 2013), 217

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.

 

 

 

 

Taliesin’s Many Meanings

While considering the next few lines of poetry the different meanings of the word dwfn should be borne in mind (see previous series of posts). In short, as an adjective it not only means ‘deep’ but also ‘profound’, and as a noun it can mean ‘world’. I’m also putting forward the argument that dwfn is sometimes used by Welsh medieval bards to mean something similar to Annwfn, the ‘in-world’, usually called the Welsh ‘otherworld’; but here I’m not defining it as a separate realm under the earth or across the sea but as a mythical, ‘deep’ dimension of this mundane, surface reality.

This concept of dwfn seems to be implied several times in the first section of ‘Angar Kyfundawt’ (LPBT 4), the longest poem copied in The Book of Taliesin and one of the poems that could have been composed by Llywarch ap Llywelyn, chief bard to Llywelyn the Great. Three instances of this dwfn are found between lines 16 and 33 which suggests it is a theme the author wished to introduce early on in this 266 line poem, perhaps because evoking this imaginary depth was an intentional effect of its performance.

The first example comes at the end of an initial sequence that lists Cian, Afagddu and Gwion as skilful and successful enchanter-bards. The poem then continues with the following couplets:

Gwiawn a leferyd,
adwfyn dyfyd;
gwnaei o varw vyw
ac anghyfoeth yw.

Marged Haycock gives the following translation:*

[It is] Gwiawn who utters,
a profound one shall come;
he would bring the dead to life
and [yet] he is poor.

Haycock cautiously interprets the second line as a foretelling by Gwion of Christ’s birth or second coming, which chimes with a possible tradition of Taliesin doing the same (although only noted in an external English source; see note to line 249 in ‘Kad Godeu’, LPBT 5). But if we stress the alternative meaning of dwfn in the second line (‘adwfyn dyfyd‘), other interpretations become available to us. For example, is this second line referring to a being that is evoked by Gwion? We could as easily render the text in translation as:

Gwiawn utters
[and] a deep one shall come:
he [Gwion] would bring the dead to life,
and he is poor.

Here I’m taking the prefix a- in adwfyn to mean the conjunction ‘and’, a possible reading mentioned by Haycock in her notes on this line. This gives a statement of fact that Gwion’s utterance will cause a ‘deep one’ to arise, effectively giving him life in the surface world through the magical act of bardic utterance. In some ways this is akin to re-enacting in the microcosm the Word of God in the macrocosm, emulating the original act of creation through divine inspiration. The description of Gwion as being poor could also work, he being portrayed as a humble smith’s son in some versions of the later Hanes Taliesin, but it also implies that he is above caring for the riches of the world, asceticism being a mark of his spiritual integrity.

The obvious question that follows is who is this ‘deep one’ brought into being by Gwion? An explanation may be found in the other examples of dwfn in this section of the poem. After a description of Afagddu and Gwion working at their fireless cauldrons (how they work their magic of creation), we have the following couplet:

Dydwyth dydyccawt
dyfynwedyd gwawt
.

Which Haycock translates as:

Passionately will song be brought forth
by the profound speaker.

Again, we could as easily say:

Passionately will song be brought forth
by the deep, profound speaker.

I would say both meanings, deep and profound, are implied here. Here we have another allusion to the enchanted nature of bardic utterance and the depth from which it arises. Regardless, taken with the first quoted example above, what is suggested is that Gwion is either evoking the presence or prophesying the coming of a ‘deep one’. Whichever meaning we wish to stress, this also chimes with the third instance of dwfn found 9 lines later. Although there is a scribal error here, Haycock’s emendation gives:

dybydaf a gwawt
dwfyn dyfu ygnawt

. . . which she translates as:

I’ll come with a song
[of] a profound one who became flesh.

Following Haycock’s interpretation, here we have the Taliesin persona repeating Gwion’s prophecy. If we can identify the former as the reincarnation of the later, we can assume they are different iterations of the same being, so it would make sense if both are making the same prophecy. But the fact of Gwion’s reincarnation as Taliesin, as attested to in the Hanes and suggested elsewhere in The Book of Taliesin, could give another parallel meaning to this couplet, that is Taliesin is the ‘one who became flesh’, just as he was born anew from Ceridwen’s womb or enchanted from flowers by Math and Gwydion (see below).

This interpretation is supported if we exercise an editor’s prerogative by placing a comma at the end of the first line of the couplet, giving:

I’ll come with a song,
[I’m] a deep one who became flesh.

Either way, this second line could very well be referring to Taliesin himself. If so, the main focus of this opening section is his own enchanted provenance, not so dissimilar to his fabricated condition noted elsewhere in The Book of Taliesin. He states clearly in ‘Kat Godeu’ – ‘the wisdom of sages fashioned me’ (LPBT, p. 183), a condition metaphorically implied when he describes how Math and Gwydion fashion him from flowers, as they did Blodeuwedd (LPBT, p. 181-2). In this particular instance we can infer that his present incarnation is created by his earlier incarnation, not an illogical sequence of events.

Taliesin therefore is the deep one who will become flesh; as an imaginary being he is brought to life – made real – by the act of bardic declamation. Is this a reference to the adoption of a dramatic persona by the performing bard? Does the mythical Taliesin exist as a figment in the imaginary depths until he ‘becomes flesh’ via the creative act of performance? This could imply a belief in either the transmission of ancestral wisdom and authority via the embodiment of an inherited, archetypal bardic persona, or even a degree of what the medieval Church may have considered ‘possession’.

On a more general point, the multiplicity of interpretations discussed here may be an intentional feature of the poem and a result of the skilful playfulness of the poet, as opposed to being a result of our inability to divine the ‘proper’ meaning. The implied references to Christ as noted by Haycock may well run in parallel to my own interpretation. It certainly wouldn’t be out of place in terms of the miraculous nature of the subject. But more importantly the text is symbolic and imaginative, appearing to subtly subvert attempts to pin it down to any overly fixed literal sense. In effect it invites us to play with its meaning.

Here is a revised translation of this section (lines 15-35) based on Marged Haycock’s but with my alternative interpretation:

Gwiawn utters
[and a] profound one will come;
he [Gwiawn] would bring the dead to life,
and he is poor.
They [Afagddu and Gwiawn] would make their cauldrons
that were boiling without fire;
they would work their materials
for ever and ever.
Passionately will song be brought fourth
by the deep, profound speaker.
Hostile is the confederacy [of opposing bards];
what is its custom?
[Since] such a great amount of the nation’s poetry
was on your tongues
why don’t you declaim a declamation,
a flow above the shining drink?
When everyone’s separated out
I’ll come with a song,
[I’m] a deep one who became flesh:
there has come a conqueror,
one of the three judges in readiness.

* Marged Haycock ed., Legendary Poems from The Book of Taliesin (2007)

Taliesin on TV

I’m taking part in a TV documentary that will air on BBC2 this Sunday evening (see bellow). They’ve got me reciting Taliesin poetry in a pub. They touch on the historic Taliesin’s most important patron, Urien of Rheged and what the Welsh consider to be our ‘Old North’. Could be interesting . . .

image004

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.