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.
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.
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.
(this blog follows on from the previous post, and will make more sense if you read that one first)
This being March 2nd, St Non’s day, its a good day to commemorate the mother of St. David (see previous post). Non was a daughter of Cynyr Ceinfarfog, a 5th century chieftain of Dyfed who’s lands were in the south-west of the kingdom. Her mother Anna is probably commemorated in St Ann’s Head not far to the west of Milford Haven. Through her mother, Non was a grand-daughter of Gwerthefyr the Blessed, named in the Welsh triads as a talismanic protector of Britain alongside Brân of the Mabinogi. Its not surprising that she is as mythologically profound as her son, the patron saint of Wales.
Her mother, Anna or Ann, was also made a saint, (as were many of her siblings) and both the names of the mother and daughter (Non and Ann could be variants of the same name) have led some to believe they are in fact Christainised versions of Ana, otherwise known as Danu in Ireland and Dôn in Wales. In Irish tradition, Non was also a mother to other female saints who went on to become mothers of saints themselves. There is an association with the divine mother in the Christian context, never mind the more pagan association with Ceridwen I discuss in the previous post. There is another example of a similar transformation with the goddess Brigit becoming, amongst other things, the Welsh Sant Ffraid.
To run with this a little, we have a mother who through her name may be associated with a divine mother, and a father associated with a folk hero that could well be derived from the old horned god (read previous post for the background to this). Both parents seem to have taken on divine attributes for the conception of this most important of Welsh religious leaders. This is all located in Dyfed, the setting of the first branch of the Mabinogi where Pwyll takes on the form and nature of Arawn, king of Annwfn, also a variant of the old hunting god, king of the otherworld. That first branch can be interpreted as describing the appropriate attitude required of a mortal chieftain when, having taken on the form of the king of the otherworld, is given the opportunity of taking advantage of the sovereign goddess of his kingdom. Pwyll’s appropriate response ensures him the love of Rhiannon, the goddess incarnate come to seek the man that showed her respect and treated her with honour.
Opposed to this we have Sandde, St. David’s father, going on a hunt associated with magical wonders (as did Pwyll), but in Sandde’s case he does the exact opposite of Pwyll and rapes St. Non. When Non comes to give birth to Dewi the very earth is split asunder with the terrible contractions she experiences. The elements appear to be in conflict: at Dewi’s birth a great storm blows about her, she splits rock and causes a spring to burst from the ground. Her nature and condition is reflected in the natural elements of the place, underlining her role as an expression of the land’s sovereignty.
There is also her position as a liminal figure. Non gives birth where land meets sea, as is Taliesin born in a similar position, in a fish weir on Borth beach, an in-between place. Also, in Rhygyfarch’s account of Dewi’s life, when Non is pregnant with Dewi:
The second miracle which David did was when his mother went to church to hear Saint Gildas preaching. When Gildas began to preach he was not able to go on; then he said “Go out all of you from the church” said he and he a second time attempted to preach but could not and then he enquired whether there were any one in the church besides himself. “I am here” said the nun between the door and the partition. “Go thou said the saint out of the church and request all the parish to come in.” And all of them came to the place and then the saint preached clearly and loud.
Then the parish asked him “Why couldst thou not preach to us a little while ago and we were anxious to hear thee.” “Call'” said the saint, “the nun to come in whom just now I sent from the church.” “Here I am,” said Nonn. Then said Gildas “The child that is in the womb of this nun has more property and grace and dignity than I have; for God has himself given to him the privilege and supreme authority over all the saints of Wales for ever both before the day of judgment and afterwards. And therefore” said he, “there is no way for me to remain here any longer on account of the child of that nun to whom the Lord hath given supreme government over all the people of this island . . .
Notice that Non is again in a liminal place, “between the door and the partition.” This could imply her being at once in this world and also in that deeper, more powerful realm of the spirit where she is a goddess of sovereignty. Again there is that idea of two in one, of both places – the mundane and supernatural – containing the same nature, and of both figures – the mortal and the divine – containing the same person.
Cyfarchion yr ŵyl.
The 1st of March is as good a day as any to consider Dewi Sant, ‘Y Dyfrwr’, known beyond Wales as St. David, ‘The Waterman’. Apparently born around the turn of the 6th century, as a historical figure he is possibly older than Taliesin by a generation or two, and is arguably the better known. But in the mythological sphere at least, both St. David and Taliesin appear to share a similar parentage. It may be surprising initially to count St. David in the mythological category, yet all that we know of him has been passed onto us through the medium of legend and lore. Even his official biographer, Rhygyfarch, reported his life as legend in stylised, myth-laden prose. Interestingly enough, this 11th century priest of St. David’s Cathedral was such a good storyteller that notable Celtic scholars have proposed him as the possible author of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi.
Rhygyfarch’s Buchedd Dewi identifies the saint as belonging to that particular fraternity of magical infants occasionally born to the Welsh imagination, Taliesin being the other obvious example. According to Rhygyfarch, before Dewi Sant was born, his father was told by an angel to collect three things while out hunting in an area close to the river Tywi, those being a stag, a salmon and a swarm of bees (Lives of the Cambro British Saints, 403). This is comparable to the transformations of Gwion Bach through hare, salmon and bird, this time in the domain of that other great Welsh river, the Dyfi. In both accounts, the similarity of the animal triads suggests that the evoking of earth, water and air is a precursor to the incarnation of a spiritually potent soul. As is common throughout medieval European literature, the Welsh bards also referred to fundamental elements (usually fire, earth, air and water) as the material constituents of every individual.
We can go deeper again with this association between Dewi and Taliesin, as Dewi’s father in Rhygyfarch’s account was none other than Sandde, a king of Ceredigion, the northern part of which is connected with the legendary Taliesin. Sandde is mentioned in both Culhwch ac Olwen and in The Twenty Four Knights of Arthur’s Court (Appendix IV of Bromwich’s Trioedd). In both texts he is named as Sandde Bryd Angel (‘angel-face’) and in both texts twinned with Morfran son of Tegid, as in the following quote from Culhwch ac Olwen:
. . . and Morfran son of Tegid, (no man planted his weapon in him at Camlan because of his ugliness. Everyone thought he was a devil helping. He had hair on him like a stag). And Sandde Angel Face, (no man planted his spear in him at Camlan because of his beauty. Everyone thought he was an angel helping).
This Morfran, as well as being Sandde’s twin, is of course Morfran son of Ceridwen, that cauldron-bearing enchantress who was also the unexpected mother of Taliesin. In this respect Taliesin would be a half brother to Morfran son of Tegid who is the mythological twin of Sandde, Dewi’s father. Such are the deeply knotted roots of the Welsh mythological pantheon.
Both preceded by animals with an elemental significance, both born in liminal places where the land meets the sea, Dewi and Taliesin are born to mothers who also may share similar circumstances. According to Rhygyfarch’s account of Dewi Sant’s conception, after finding the triad of symbolic animals during his hunt in the Tywi region, Sandde came across a nun called Non and through blind lust raped her, the result of which was David. Although in the medieval rendering of Taliesin’s tale its the female that hunts the male, its Gwion Bach who seeds Ceridwen’s womb, suggesting his role as Taliesin’s symbolic father. Gwion Bach could in some respects be considered Morfran’s twin, the latter being cheated of the three drops of wisdom when Gwion Bach took his place before the cauldron of inspiration.
Both Non and Ceridwen are made pregnant by two males, both of which are symbolic twins of the same Morfran son of Tegid. Anne Ross has already noted that Morfran son of Tegid, horned like a devil and covered in stag hair, is an echo of the earlier horned god (Pagan Celtic Britain, 190), a British equivalent of Cernunnos. Another example of this twinning is found in the first branch of the Mabinogi, when Pwyll becomes Arawn’s twin before entering Annwfn, Arawn being another variant of the old hunter, as is Gwyn ap Nudd and various other characters from Welsh myth.
The similarities between the birth of Dewi Sant and Taliesin reveal the signs by which the Welsh may have traditionally identified their spiritual leaders, at least in symbolic or mythological terms. Its a well attested fact that the early Christian church adopted many symbols and motifs from the earlier non-Christian beliefs of Western Europe, and it would not be unreasonable to assume that the native mythology concerning the incarnation of a spiritual leader continued as the dominant tradition into the early Christian period. Perhaps in Dewi’s time such a native mythological context would have seemed a natural one to adopt, simply part of the cultural furniture that was at hand. It is fitting for the birth of Dewi Sant, chief of all British saints, to be accompanied by the same magic as that of Taliesin, chief of all bards.
I’ve put a new resources page together, including some useful websites as well as a collection of pronunciation guides I recorded for a student some time ago. I’ve also included a link to a page I put together back in 2009 on a research project I took part in looking at medieval Welsh bardic declamation.
The bardic declamation project resulted in series of videos, some of which were filmed at the Voicing the Verse conference in Bangor University. The one I’ve included bellow is a reconstructed declamation of the poem Pawb at Dewi by the prophecy poet Dafydd Llwyd, probably composed in 1485. When Henry Tudor was making his way through Wales gathering support and troops for his forthcoming battle with Richard III at Bosworth, he stopped off at Mathafarn Hall just outside of Machynlleth to visit Dafydd Llwyd, one of the better known prophecy poets of the time. Dafydd Llwyd was a trained Welsh bard that practiced the ancient art of political prophecy, a genre of bardic poetry associated with the myth of the mab darogan, the son of prophecy.
Henry Tudor, needing the support of his relations amongst the Welsh nobility, knew that a proclamation of support by the famous Dafydd Llwyd would aid his cause. According to folk tradition, having spent the evening with Dafydd and his wife, Henry asked the bard straight out “So who do you think will win the battle at Bosworth? Me or Richard?” Being caught unawares, Dafydd replied he would meditate upon the question that night and give Henry the answer next morning. Later on that evening, with the young Henry and his companions tucked up in bed, Dafydd was pacing up and down his bedchamber pulling at his beard. His wife, trying to sleep, asked him “Dafydd, what’s wrong, come to bed and let us sleep!”, to which Dafydd replied “But what shall I tell him? He could be king in a few weeks time; I must get it right.” To which his wife replied “Just tell him he’s going to win. If he does, he’ll look favourably upon you. If he looses, well it doesn’t matter because he won’t be around to complain about it. Now come to bed!” So that’s what Dafydd told him and the rest, as they say, is history.
The poem we’re performing in the video bellow was probably composed by Dafydd Llwyd to be declaimed before the Welsh troops just before going into battle at Bosworth. Its a rousing call-and-response between the bard and the troops, stirring them to action and calling for the blessings of St David for those about to go to war. Its led by Twm Morys, a well regarded chaired bard, and based on the research of Peter Greenhill (first on the left of the group) who also provided the research and interpretation for Paul Dooley‘s album of music from the ‘ap Huw’ harp manuscript.
The first part of the Welsh Mythology audio course will soon be available to download, hopefully by next week.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This autumn I’ll be making available a Welsh Mythology home study audio course which you will be able to download from this website. In preparation I’ve put together this series of blog posts that sets out some useful approaches to interpreting mythological symbols. I’ll be posting every few weeks and please feel free to ask any questions or leave comments bellow.
In keeping with the ancient bardic practice of working in threes, this series of posts defines three aspects of a symbol; these are: depth, paradox and potential. There are many other terms and definitions that we could use, but these three can be useful as we begin to interpret a symbol.
Depth, a spatial metaphor
It can be said that a symbol has depth, but what exactly does that mean? This is a spatial metaphor describing a particular characteristic of symbols: they commonly have a surface, literal meaning that points to the deeper, symbolic meaning. For example, the image of Father Christmas is on the surface just that, an image of a merry looking, bearded man in a red costume.
But the image of Father Christmas is also a symbol expressing all those things associated with Christmas time: giving and receiving gifts; children playing; roast turkey dinners. If we separate some of these associations out we find that they in turn contain further associations. For example, the image of children playing taken alone evokes other connotations such as child-hood, happiness, family.
Here the surface image has a literal meaning that points to further, deeper meanings.
Transcendent and Particular
As well as having a depth of meaningful associations, a symbol can be described in terms of another kind of depth that, from the individual’s perspective at least, appears to transcend their cultural associations. On the one hand there are particular features that refer to the regional, ethnic or personal aspects of a symbol, and on the other hand the transcendent associations that refer to the more profound, universal ideas implied, more often than not linked to those ideas that appear to the individual to be too general to be contained by the conceptual bounds of their specific culture. Rightly or wrongly, transcendent interpretations are aplied by an individual to the whole of humanity, the universe and everything.
In other words, symbols can appear to point past themselves to meanings that are not always explicitly obvious in their surface form. Again, the basic metaphor here is that of depth. The symbol itself inhabits a foreground, beyond which lies a mid ground containing interpretations that correspond to personal and communal culture; beyond that there is a further space, where a symbol appears to point past itself to interpretations that seek to transcend those personal or regional definitions.
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.
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.
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,
gwnaei o varw vyw
ac anghyfoeth yw.
Marged Haycock gives the following translation:*[It is] Gwiawn who utters,
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:
[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:
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:
[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)
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:
A slightly extended version of the Symbolic Keys online course will also run beginning Sunday April 20th.