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The Magic of Meaning

Autumn 2016 course.

This autumn I’ll be holding a new online course. It will cover most of the new research I’ve been putting together this last year, including new comparative texts from English and European history. As always we will be taking a detailed look at The Four Branches of the Mabinogi and its related tales, including the Tale of Taliesin and Culhwch and Olwen.

The course will include some recorded lectures and 12 live online seminars spread over 12 weeks. Students will have a choice of attending seminars on either Tuesday or Thursday evenings, beginning September 20th and 22nd respectively at 7:30pm (UK time).

The price of the course including all materials is £120. If you would like to book, please get in touch. A PDF of the course details can be download here: The Magic of Meaning 2016

 

The Magic of Meaning

Introduction to the Autumn 2016 course.

I had never been satisfied by general interpretations of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi. Most scholars have seemed reluctant to view the tales as myths even. Most of the modern research published, no matter how useful, seems to say more about current academic values than it does about the text itself.

As a result, a few years back I began looking at what people in the past thought of their great narratives, their traditional tales and myths. What I discovered was that even as far back as the Roman Empire, myths were not only sacred tales about gods, but were regarded as multi-layered and symbolic texts that needed to be interpreted if they were to be understood. This is how it was put by the 4th century Greek philosopher Sallustius:

arton1148.jpg

. . . to wish to teach the whole truth about the Gods to all produces contempt in the foolish, because they cannot understand, and lack of zeal in the good, whereas to conceal the truth by myths prevents the contempt of the foolish, and compels the good to practice philosophy.

 

 

In keeping with his Classical training, Sallustius believed the hidden truths of myth were revealed through what he called ‘philosophy’, a way of perceiving underlying patterns, concepts and themes not immediately apparent in the surface narrative of a tale. Sallustius is implying the symbolic philosophies preserved in myth could make the incomprehensible universe meaningful, and give adepts a clear place in the vast order of things.

Alongside this early appreciation of the symbolic nature of myth was a similar tradition that saw storytelling as a way of teaching moral truths. The Old Testament for example contains several allegories, as do other Christian texts. But the allegory, or instructive symbolic tale, wasn’t a Christian invention. It’s likely to have been a common element of many oral traditions, known throughout the ancient world as a tool for teaching young minds how to think, how to look beyond surface details to the heart of a tale’s meaning.

255751-1330621567.jpg

An Allegory of Truth and Time by Annibale Carracci c. 1585

 

The Four Branches share some similarities with allegories. For example, in some medieval allegories we find characters that personify certain human traits, such as Folly or Virtue. Similarly, in The Four Branches the name of the very first character, Pwyll, is also the Welsh word for the human qualities of discernment, deliberation, wisdom, caution and  care. A more modern equivalent term may be mindfulness. There are also peculiar, symbolic events that are described without explanation, the suggestion being that they contain what Pwyll himself calls ystyr hud, or ‘magical meaning’.

In an oral tradition such as the one that gave us The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, interpretation would likewise have been a natural response amongst audiences. There were no peer reviewed journals, no guides to linguistics or indexes of comparative literature. Very little was written down, and what was written was only available to a very few. Instead, medieval audiences would have interpreted the tales from within the context of their own native lore, that slowly evolving body of traditional knowledge that preserved very ancient ideas and attitudes.

But for us today, getting access to this wider body of oral lore is difficult. Our modern culture is undoubtedly far removed from that of our ancestors. All we have as proof of this older culture of oral lore is to be had in medieval writing, and within those pages the oral tradition could only sound as an echo. Yet by comparing these medieval texts with The Four Branches, we can begin to tease out the oral threads that connect them.

Having spent several years studying and comparing medieval tales, I’ve come to the conclusion that many of them contain different versions of the same basic set of ideas. But those ideas are never explicitly stated; as Sallustius describes, they remain hidden, intentionally esoteric. Guessing at those grand ideas, grasping for that unity of vision and meaning, can only ever be done with the imagination, as has always been the case.

The forthcoming course considers the tales as sources of symbolic meaning, and focusses on those characters and events that offer easiest access to the depths contained in The Four Branches, perhaps the only myths of ancient Britain to survive intact.

Folksongs for the Leri

Good St David’s Day to you all. A little gift to celebrate:

In the autumn of 2015 I invited local poets living close to the Leri River to contribute folk verses about the river for me to sing and record, and here are the results. I’ll be releasing 3 songs on March 1st, three on March 7th and the last three on March 14th. Then there will be a CD available on April 22nd at the gig in the Black Lion, Tal-y-bont.

Download the first three songs for free here.

Many, many thanks for everyone who contributed, the poets, the choir, the artist, and especially Siwan and Fal.

Clawr Digidol 1

This creative work was funded by Cymerau.

Celts: Art and Identity

This week I visited the British Museum in London to take a look at their exhibition ‘Celts: Art and Identity’. Having studied many of the artefacts that were on display, it was always going to be a real treat for me. I arrived in great anticipation: I was finally going to see the Gundestrup cauldron, The Snettisham Torc and the many other fabulous treasures I had only so far seen in photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed in this respect. The objects themselves are well worth a visit. Sadly, the interpretation of Celtic identity left me feeling rather frustrated.

I originally started this blog to discuss Celtic myths, to open them to deeper readings, to help others appreciate them as much as possible. But for once I’m going to try and dispel a myth, in particular the myth that lies at the heart of this otherwise amazing exhibition.

The narrative created by the curators was based on the idea that over the millennia Celtic identity has been very ‘fluid’, and this word crept up consistently throughout the presentations. From Classical references to exotic northern tribes to a style of modern art, the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have been used for many different things and in many different ways, making them terms that are apparently ‘fluid’ and quite nebulous. As a result, the exhibition claimed that the “concept of a fluid Celtic identity” was a “powerful political tool”, the suggestion being that it simply served a superficial nationalism and in reality didn’t have much validity as a description of a historical people. What the curators failed to grasp was that the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have regularly been used to mean very different things, but usually with no regard to what the Celts themselves have to say on the subject.

Regardless of its apparent instability, the term ‘Celtic’ has been used in a remarkably consistent way at crucial points in time. The ancient Greeks used it to describe a particular group of people. Then, many centuries later, the Welsh scholar Edward Lhuyd (1660 -1709) used it to refer to the descendants of these same people. So it was used as a name for the same group of people in the first millennia BC and then again two millennia later. Nothing fuzzy or mysterious there. After Edward Lhuyd, ‘Celtic’ was used to designate a language group and resulted in the idea of the Celtic nations, those folks who were on the same branch of the Indo-European languages family tree. None of this is contentious. ‘Celtic’ is still used as the name for the same people the early Greeks were talking about.

It’s true that the Celts for most of their history didn’t call themselves Celts. But neither did the Germanic peoples necessarily call themselves Germanic; that doesn’t lead us to make claims about the ‘fluid’ nature of the English identity. Far from being so nebulous, the Celtic speaking nations have preserved historical identities that are so far some of the oldest in Europe. The apparent instability of the term ‘Celtic’ in an English context doesn’t mean that what it refers to is itself unstable. Celts exist independently of whether the English language can fully grasp them or not. The Welsh have always known that they are descendants of the early Britons, who were themselves descendants of the people the Greeks called the Celts. Again, this isn’t contentious. The Welsh identity is rooted in a very old idea that has remained coherent for a very long time. There is nothing ambiguous or ‘fluid’ about it. Yes, Celtic identity has changed, but it must be asked: relative to what is Celtic identity ‘fluid’? Relative to English identity? Relative to Germanic identity? Are these in any way less fluid?

The confused thinking of the curators was seen at it’s worst in their giving so much attention to the Celtic ‘Revival’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The assumption was that this strand of mainly English culture was a reflection of Celtic culture. This is a bit like claiming that Disney’s Sword in the Stone is an accurate retelling of the Welsh myth of Arthur. They are related, one is obviously rooted in the other, but neither are they the same. Disney’s film is a filtered, simplified version of the myth adapted for the modern Anglo-American audience, whereas the early Welsh texts preserve the original cultural phenomena. The Celtic Revival is just the same. The actual Celtic culture of the time was alive and well in the towns, villages and farmsteads of Celtic speaking communities, but was quite different to what the English speaking bourgeois assumed it to be. At the time, the Celtic Revival served to confirm an English stereotype, and did very little to preserve what remained of the Manx and Cornish languages, or reverse the steep decline of Welsh, Irish, Scotts Gaelic and Bretton. The exhibition is simply perpetuating this same ignorance.

Whereas the quasi-pagan fetishes of English Romantics were given a place of honour at the exhibition, very little space was given to the actual history of the Celtic nations after the Roman occupation. There was no hint of how remarkably coherent the Celtic cultures were throughout the medieval period, and how many early, pre-Christian elements were preserved by the medieval Celtic tradition. In contrast, the modern Celtic Revival was sighted as proof that modern Celtic identity was a fluid and unsteady phenomena, indeed nothing more than a romantic reinvention of the past. Which it was, but one that took place almost totally within an English context! In this respect, the exhibition did more to reaffirm an English attitude than it did to actually reveal Celtic cultures in an English setting, something that’s clearly still desperately needed.

The ancient Celtic art on display at the museum is stunning, but the exhibition itself is strung together with the same nonsense that has caused so much confusion between the English and their closest neighbours over the centuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of visitors came away thinking that bards and eisteddfodau were invented by Welsh Victorian romantics, or that the Anglo-Saxons simply ‘emerged in Britain’ (I assume they popped out of a hole in Kent), or that the Celts were dreamed up by renaissance scholars. The English curators’ unconscious attitude to their Indo-European cousins is akin to how many old people are treated these days: their memories are unreliable, they’ve lost a few marbles, and because they can’t be trusted we’ve confiscated the family silver.

What the curators failed to acknowledge is that those of us still living in Celtic cultures are quite capable of defining our own national identities, diolch yn fawr iawn. The Celts are not a senile culture of self-deluding romantics, we are alive and well and doing things in the world right now. Let us speak for ourselves, we may then believe that the museum is actually British in the full sense of the word.

Shakespeare’s Horns

Tonight is called Nos Galan Gaeaf in Wales, and is an ysbrydnos, or ‘spirit night’ when the dead walk abroad under the starry skies. Halloween is the most recent tradition associated with this night, known at one time as ‘All Hallows Eve’, but there were traditions that came before it, such as the old Celtic festivities of harvest time. As with Samhain in Ireland, and indeed for many of the early peoples of Europe in general, this was the time when the ripened fruits and crops of late summer and autumn were celebrated as the abundant wealth of the land. Alongside such celebration there would have naturally been a time of reflection, particularly as this fulfilment of life’s fruition also marks the moment when the seasons turn and all growing life prepares itself to pass through the death of winter. This is the natural time to acknowledge mortality and consider what may come after the cold season.

Its probably for this reason that tonight is also the time when Gwyn ap Nudd hunts the land, when even the living can be taken up as souls to join in his eternal hunt, urging on the magical hounds as they chase through the darkness. This happened to one Ned Pugh, a famous Welsh fiddler whose mournful refrains were heard one Nos Galan Gaeaf transforming into the bright call of a huntsman’s bugle. Having entered a cave on that particular Halloween, he wandered deep into the belly of the earth from which he was never to return alive, but was instead taken up as chief huntsman to Gwyn ap Nudd, exchanging his fiddle for a horn.

A similar account could be given of Arawn from the First Branch of the Mabinogi. One of the very few allusions to Arawn in Welsh folklore concerns a ghost that was often heard declaiming Hir yw’r dydd a hir yw’r nos, a hir yw aros Arawn, a little verse that roughly translates as ‘Long is the day and long is the night, and long is the wait for Arawn.’ Was this the soul of someone long dead still waiting to be called by Arawn to join the otherworldly hunt? We shall never know for certain, but the other similarities between Arawn and Gwyn ap Nudd would lead us to think so.

Lord_Arawn

If anyone knows who made this image please let me know.

One of those similarities is the connection both these figures have to the instincts of physical desire, all those visceral and carnal urges that are fired by the hunt. Arawn was the one who tempted Pwyll with his beautiful wife, and Gwyn was a dangerously jealous lover of Creiddylad according to the medieval redactors of Culhwch ac Olwen. Gwyn was also responsible for tempting Collen with illusory food when the saint visited his phantom palace atop Glastonbury Tor. All of these temptations are echoed in an English version of the Magical Huntsman, a figure of superstition that Shakespeare found so intriguing he brought him to life, quite ridiculously, in his play The Merry Wives of Windsor.

“There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Some time a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the wintertime, at still midnight,
Walk round about an oak, with great ragg’d horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle,
And makes milch-kine yield blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dreadful manner.
You’ve heard of such spirit; and well you know
The superstitious idol headed old
Received, and did deliver to our age,
This tale of Herne the hunter for the truth.”

Despite the paucity of material concerning Herne, Shakespeare’s use of him in the play chimes with much of what we already know of Herne’s Welsh cousins, all three being hunters with supernatural qualities that are associated with fairies and the dead. Not unlike the spirits and sprites of many lands it appears that Herne can cause disease amongst cattle, and his moaning and clanking of chains is not unlike the restless behaviour of the souls of the dead.

But it may also be worthwhile considering Shakespeare’s actual use of Herne in the play. To cut a rather long story short, Falstaff, a lecherous wastrel with expensive tastes, attempts to seduce two married women by employing various deceptions. After realising his unsavoury intentions, both women take their revenge by tricking him into dressing up as Herne the Hunter for a promised night of pleasure. While waiting under the Windsor Oak sporting a pair of horns, Falstaff works himself up to a froth waiting for the two wanton wives to come and ravish him. But instead of his anticipated satisfaction he is accosted by a gang of children and adults in fairy costume whom he believes to be real spirits of the otherworld come to punish his mortal trespass (he obviously went for the trick, not the treat). These cruel fairies and sprites ridicule him and eventually put him in his place, all of which Falstaff accepts with rather good grace.

James Stephanoff 'Falstaff at Herne's Oak'

James Stephanoff, ‘Falstaff at Herne’s Oak’ 1832

Lechery and excessive desires in general are a theme that Shakespeare explores throughout the play, with Falstaff being the embodiment of aristocratic excess. In contrast to Falstaff’s debauched appetites, through various mentions and allusions, Shakespeare subtly evokes the Order of the Garter, a royal order of nobles chosen by Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s own patron. This order was supposedly one of high-minded restraint and discipline, as stated in their motto ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’, which literally translates as ‘Evil be to him who thinks evil.’ The Merry Wives of Windsor could well have been written to feature in an event held at the royal estate of Windsor attended by Queen Elizabeth and her Order of the Garter. This would explain why Falstaff’s fate in the play appears to be a realisation of the order’s motto. His bad intentions result in a bad outcome where he finds himself dressed in the guise of none other than Herne the Hunter.

There are several hints in The Merry Wives of Windsor of folk traditions concerning the unfortunate figure of the cuckold. When a man’s wife had been unfaithful, some communities would ridicule the couple and in particular the husband by placing horns on his head, thus marking him out as a cuckold, a man who shares his wife with other men. In this way the wearing of horns was associated with a lack of fidelity. But whereas these later traditions have the cuckold as a figure of derision, Shakespeare, in his own magical way, may well have been evoking a much older idea concerning the horned hunter.

There are several points of comparison between Shakespeare’s Herne and Arawn from the Mabinogi. Both figures are party to an exchange of places, Falstaff with Herne and Pwyll with Arawn, both mortals become the god and both gods are the magical huntsmen in their respective regions. Having taken on the external form of the god, both mortals come to meet the fairies of the otherworld, an experience that went better for Pwyll than it did for Falstaff. Pwyll showed restraint and self-control in the bed of Arawn’s fairy queen, where Falstaff was seen for the lecherous toff he was and punished by the ‘fairies.’ One succeeded in wearing the mantle of the otherworld, while the other didn’t. Pwyll was learning his lesson, as was Shakespeare’s Falstaff, although in a markedly different way.

If this was Shakespeare’s understanding, and who could deny one of the greatest bards of the English language such an insight, this horned figure was far from the object of ridicule and derision that he appeared to be on the surface. Falstaff’s failure was to be deaf to what the Huntsman had to say about the sowing and reaping of one’s desires. Pwyll, on the other hand, was listening well, as his name suggests.

Songs for the Leri

I’ve been busy this last month or so with a music commission that may be of interest to some of you. Its part of a wider project of commissioned arts called Cymerau (Welsh for ‘river confluence’). Its aim is to inspire engagement with water and what it means to us as communities and people living in a particular landscape.

My own project, Penillion i’r Leri (‘Songs for the Leri’), is an opportunity for local folks to write folk lyrics for me to sing. In Wales, the folk tradition of ballads and old songs remains a prominent part of culture, and some folks will write folk lyrics in the traditional style, usually for nothing more than their own pleasure, but sometimes for friends, family and other locals. They are almost always on a local theme, and often mention local history or events prominent at the time.

I’ve been asking locals who live along the River Leri to compose penillion (‘folk lyrics’) on the topic of the river as she meanders her way from the high ground around Pumlumon down to the Dyfi estuary. Below is (probably a bad) translation of one recent contribution from Bleddyn Huws of Talybont (sorry Bleddyn if I’ve maimed it too much), followed by a test recording of myself performing it. Enjoy!

The River Leri

What’s the sound in River Leri
rushing on towards the sea?
What kind of chords are in her waters
swelling into one encore?

Is it the mournful sound of days long gone,
old melodies of congregations
roaring wild in her boiling waves
between the hills as she pours on?

Is it the sound of voices from the past
stirring me by night and day
that echo along her shores,
sometimes merry, sometimes sad?

Some say its the sound of her tears
heard endlessly every day
above the bracken in Braichgarw,
weather it be fine or rain.

I hear a song thats older than history
as she rushes to the sea,
the timeless song of vast centuries
drowning the brief moments of my hearing.

And here’s the first draft (which will change for the better as my sister joins me for harmony):

The Triads of Poetic Craft

Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid* (‘The Grammars of the Chief Bards’) are a family of texts found in various manuscripts from about the 14th to the 16th centuries, although its quite likely the basic material they contain is much older. They would have been used as teaching tools in the bardic schools and reference works for those wealthy enough to have copies made. At one time, much of this material would have been memorised and transmitted orally.

These bardic grammars contain, as one would imagine, the basic rules of Welsh grammar. They also contain long sequences of triads on poetic craft known as the trioedd cerdd. The bards were very fond of the three-fold form. We find it not only in the structure of prose tales, but in the oldest kinds of poetry – the three-line englyn remains one of the most popular types of stanza to this day. The story triads (edited by Rachel Bromwich in Trioedd Ynys Prydein) were once valued sources of knowledge in Welsh medieval culture.

The triads of poetic craft are a little window onto the life of the court bards. They reveal how a guild of poets taught and practiced their oral craft of poetry. As expected, we find the different aspects of performance to be very important to them. They also continue to be sound advice to anyone wishing to take up poetry, and the performance of poetry in particular. Here are a few of the more interesting ones:

Three things that make a poem strong:
depth of meaning, regularity of Welsh, and excellence of imagination.

Three things that make a poem weak:
vulgar imagination, shallow meaning, and a lack of Welsh.

Three things a poem likes:
clear declamation, skilful construction, and the authority of the bard.

Three things a poem does not like:
feeble declamation, vulgar imagination, and the dishonour of the bard.

Three things that make awen for a bard:
genius, and practice, and art.

Three things that impoverish a bard’s awen:
drunkenness, lustfulness, and criticism.

Three essentials for a bard:
liveliness of speech when declaiming a poem, and meditating upon poetic art to ensure it is not faulty, and the boldness of his answer to what he is asked.

Three things that make a bard consistent:
the telling of tales, and poetry, and the old poetry (hengerdd).

Three things that give honour to a bard:
dress, authority, and boldness.

Three things that cause a bard to be loved and praised:
generosity, making merry, and praising good men.

Three things that cause a bard to be hated:
miserliness, insipidness, and satirising good men.

* The standard edition is by G.J. Williams, Gramadegau’r Penceirddiaid (UWP 1934). These are my translations.

New course at Siop Cynfelyn, Tre’r Ddol 24.6.15

A 4 week course held every Wednesday evening at Siop Cynfelyn, Tre’r Ddol, SY20 8PN. Starts June 24th at 7:30. Please get in touch to book your place.

The course will focus on the medieval Welsh prose classic The Four Branches of the Mabinogi, a thousand year old text that was derived from an earlier, oral storytelling tradition. It will trace the lineage of certain figures and motifs back into pre-history, and suggest what the tales may have meant to a medieval audience.

“I can’t recommend this course highly enough. . . . I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to delve deeper into these most magical stories. Gwilym was a generous and thoughtful guide who lead us through the dense and multilayered foliage of the Mabiongi with great enthusiasm and spirit!”  – Sophie Mkeand, poet

“These tales were not created for entertainment, . . . They are the remnants of the mythology of the Britons, their belief about the other world – Annwfn – and about the dealings of gods and men; the heroes of the Four Branches are characters from the pantheon of the Celtic religion of Britain . . . ” – Brynley F. Roberts

Four Branches Flier

The Birth of Taliesin

Most versions of Taliesin’s tale (but not all) locate his birth from the sea on the coast of northern Ceredigion. Elffin finds him as an infant, washed up in a skin bag, caught in Gwyddno Garanhir’s fish weir. For example, an incomplete version of the tale recorded by Llywelyn Siôn, probably copied sometime before 1561, has this to say about the location of the fish weir:

Ag ynyr amser hwnnw i ddoedd kored i Wyddno Garanhir ar y traeth rwng Dyvi ag ystwyth geyr llaw i gastell i hvn ag yny gored honno i kaid gwerth kanpynt bob nos glamai.

And in that time Gwyddno Garanhir had a fish weir on the beach between [the rivers] Dyfi and Ystwyth beside his own castle, and in that fish weir was had a hundred pounds [of fish] every May eve.

This agrees almost exactly with another version copied by John Jones of Gellilyfdy in 1607:

Ag yn yr amser hwnnw yr oedd gored Wyddno yn y traeth rrwng Dyfi ag Aberystwyth garllaw ei gastell ehûn ag yn y goret honno y kaid kywerthyd kan punt bob nos kalan Mai.

And in that time Gwyddno’s fish weir was on the beach between Dyfi and Aberystwyth beside his own castle and in that fish weir [a catch] to the value of a hundred pounds was had every May eve.

Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin (UWP 1992), 135 (my translations).

Between Aberystwyth and the Dyfi, the only beach is to be found at Borth, a name derived from the much earlier Porth Wyddno, or ‘Gwyddno’s Port’:

X marks the spot

In 2012, the sea breached the defences at Borth, causing much flooding. Soon after, the work of building new sea defences was undertaken on the beach. As always, the building contractors were obliged to have a team of archaeologists investigating anything of interest dug up during the course of their work.

Sometime in 2014, such a team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Roderick Bale from Lampeter University, did come across something of interest. In a recent email I received from Dr Bale, he said:

“What we found and recovered . . . was a closely spaced line (around 30cm between each) of radially split oak stakes (around 80 in total) and one non oak roundwood post. The line (in some places a double line) ran east west pretty much opposite the final house in Borth . . . . The posts continued seaward beyond the limit of the sea defence construction zone but had been buried by sand last time I was in Borth a couple of months ago.

Age and function is (as yet) uncertain though the stakes preserve tool marks made with a flat bladed metal axe and of the few I have looked at in detail are sourced from fairly slow grown oak trees. It could certainly be part of some kind of fish weir, the rest of which may be buried under sand or has been removed in the past. . . . the structure is similar to other [fish traps] found on the Welsh coast, . . . .”

Dr Bale intends to do more work on pieces of the fish weir that he recovered, so a date could be forthcoming soon.

Although the fish weir has been buried under the sand since the excavation, a few weeks back, while taking in the calm sea air, I noticed that some of the stakes had been uncovered by the tide. Seizing the opportunity I dashed home and grabbed my wife’s camera:

The tops of four stakes from the fish weir found by Dr Bale.

The fish weir next to a petrified tree stump.

The sea defence boulders on the left were placed over part of the fish weir. The tide marker is just to its right.

Is this the spot where Taliesin was symbolically born from the sea?

As I’ve described in earlier posts, the whole area surrounding Cors Fochno and the Dyfi estuary sounds with echoes of Taliesin’s myth. If Patrick Ford’s arguments in Ytsoria Taliesin (UWP 1992) are to be taken seriously, then the early hero Cynfelyn may have been Taliesin’s teacher and initiator. Cynfelyn, as is typical of some of these early figures, became a saint who’s church is only a few miles away inland at Llangynfelyn (see map above).

In Elis Gruffydd‘s version of the tale, Taliesin recounts:

Myfi a fum yn y gwynfryn
yn llys Cynfelyn,
mewn cyff a gefyn
un dydd a blwyddyn; . . .

I was in the blessed hill
in the court of Cynfelyn,
in a shackle and chain
for a year and a day; . . .

Ibid, 78.

This may refer to Taliesin’s own initiation, bound and placed in a ‘blessed hill’ or mound (Bedd Taliesin?) at the court of Cynfelyn. Elsewhere in the same version of the tale Taliesin states:

y bardd ni’m gosdeco
gosdeg ni chaffo
oni êl mewn gortho,
dan raean a gro; . . .

the bard that fails to silence me [in a bardic contest] will never have peace
unless he goes into a grave
under soil and shale; . . .

Ibid, 81.

According to Ford, Taliesin is alluding here to how a bard must experience the same symbolic death before he is accepted into the bardic guild. This symbolic death may have been followed by a symbolic birth, perhaps marked in ritual on Borth beach at an ancient fish weir.

We shall never know if any of these theories add up to historical fact, but the clues scattered across this old landscape and amongst the pages of manuscript hint at the symbolic acts of the medieval Welsh bards.

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