Taliesin was the name of a Welsh poet, a druid-bard who sang to Wales the glories of fine art at the courts of at least three Celtic British Kings. In legend and myth, he is often referred to as Taliesin Ben Beirdd which means “Taliesin, Chief of Bards.” Some tales relate that he was adopted as a child by Elffin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir. The later tale of his origins begins with the young lad known by the name Gwion Bach, servant to Cerridwen. Cerridwen had an ugly son, Avagddu, whose appearance no magic could cure. She began brewing a potion that would give him the gift of inspiration (Awen) and wisdom in compensation for his appearance. The first three drops of this potion would grant the one who consumed them the gifts in full and the remainder of the potion would be turned to poison. This brew had to be constantly stirred for a year and a day, so Cerridwen, who had better things to do, set Gwion to this task accompanied by Morda, the blind man who tended the fire.
Now it came that one day, Gwion was splashed with three drops as a bubble from the pot burst. The hot liquid caused Gwion to instinctively place his thumb in his mouth, instantly granting him great powers of wisdom and creativity. His first wise thought was to run, for Cerridwen would certainly murder him for this! It was not long before Cerridwen’s fury echoed through the land. Gwion turned himself into a hare to run faster, but Cerridwen turned herself into a greyhound and gave chase. He turned himself into a fish and leapt into a river, but Cerridwen turned herself into an otter and swam after him still. Gwion jumped from the water and turned himself into a bird, but Cerridwen turned herself into a hawk and was right on his tail feathers. Finally, exhausted from the newfound art of shapeshifting and the pace of the chase, Gwion turned himself into a grain of corn and rested peacefully on the ground. Cerridwen, who misses not, turned herself into a hen and ingested the corn, thinking she had rid herself of the evil boy who stole her potion.
Soon after, Cerridwen found she was pregnant, and once she realized it was Gwion, she resolved to kill the boy once and for all upon his birth. However, when the child was born, he was so beautiful that she could not follow through with the task. Still wishing to be rid of him, she tied him in a leather satchel and threw him into the sea.
It is said he was discovered by Elffin while fishing for salmon. When Elffin uncovered the babe, he was shocked at the whiteness of the boy’s brow and cried, “Dyma Dal lesin!” which means, “This is a radiant brow!” He was further shocked to learn the boy could already speak as his voice burst forth in poetic form. Elffin took the child into his care.
At the age of thirteen while visiting King Maelgwn Gwynedd at court, Elffin proclaimed his Taliesin to be a far better bard than anyone the king had at court. Maelgwn imprisoned Elffin for his insolence and demanded Taliesin be brought forth to prove this claim, and when he arrived, his words were unmatchable for they rendered the king’s bards to speaking in only babbling tones as those of a baby. Elffin was released from prison.
Over time, many tales exist regarding the verbal prowess of the magnificent Taliesin, and a myriad of works refer to him for his great skill. He is called today in our Druidic rites that he may grant us the powers of Wise Words and Awen that Cerridwen had granted to him—though with a little more “direct action” and none of the angry chase scenes!
Ford, Patrick K. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley, CA, University of California Press: 1977. Print.
Koch, John and John Carey. The Celtic Heroic Age 3rd ed. Malden, Mass, Celtic Studies Publishing: 2003. Print.