Taliesin walks between the worlds of history and myth. There was a 6th century Welsh Bard called Taliesin and his praise poetry is still extant. The Taliesin of myth and legend is the shamanic-bard who journeyed into the Underworld with King Arthur to win the Cauldron of Plenty (Preiddu Annwn). It is from another cauldron that Taliesin received his poetic gift – the Cauldron of Inspiration.
The Cauldron of Inspiration belonged to the wisest woman in Wales, Ceridwen. By her husband, Tegid Foel, she had given birth to a beautiful daughter, Creirwy, and an ill-favoured son, Avagddu. To compensate for his unfortunate ugliness Ceridwen concocted a potion of inspiration for him. She collected the necessary ingredients and cooked them in her cauldron. She got a boy, Gwion Bach, from the local village to stir the cauldron for a year and a day, and an old man, Morda, to stoke the fire and keep it burning. Alas, when the task was nearly complete, Gwion Bach became sleepy and dropped the spoon – splashing his hand in the process. He put his burnt fingers in his mouth and received the distilled wisdom meant for Avagddu. The rest of the potion was poisonous and split the cauldron asunder, its contents spilling into a nearby river, killing the horse of Gwyddno, which drank there.
Meanwhile, Gwion Bach knew Ceridwen would be furious and have his guts for garters – so he took the form of a hare and high-tailed it out of there. With the potion coursing through his blood he had the power of shape-shifting. So off he dashed. Ceridwen discovered the disaster and indeed she was furious. In her rage she poked out one of Morda’s eyes with his own poker. Ceridwen took on the shape of a greyhound and gave chase after Gwion Bach. Soon she was snapping at his heels, so Gwion jumped into a stream, his fur fell away, and he turned into a salmon. Ceridwen would not be out-witted and turned into an otter-bitch. She had almost caught him when he leapt into the air, his scales fell away to reveal feathers – he had become a tiny wren, king of the birds. But the sky was no safer from Ceridwen, who turned from otter to hawk. In a flash she had him within an inch of his life, so Gwion Bach became smaller – turning into a germ of wheat and falling below onto the thrashing floor of a farmyard. The hawk-eyed Ceridwen dropped down too, and became a black hen. She scratched around until she spotted the suspicious wheat grain. Triumphant, she plucked Gwion Bach up and swallowed him. Ceridwen returned to the shape of a woman but the transformation was not over, for nine months later she gave birth to a baby boy so beautiful she could not kill him – but because of ugly Avagddu she could not keep him, for the boy shone with the wisdom meant for her poor son. Ceridwen wrapped up the Twice-Born in a leather bundle and cast him out to sea in a coracle.
It was May Eve and Elphin, son of Gwyddno, was out fishing at his father’s weir. He had been granted the right to catch salmon there, which returned every year at that time. He was hoping to change the family’s fortune, but he wasn’t having much luck. He was about to give up when he spotted the sea-battered coracle. He pulled it ashore and was astounded to see something move in it. Gingerly, Elphin unwrapped the bundle and saw the baby boy, and he cried “Behold, the Shining Brow!” And that his how Taliesin got his name.
The boy shone with intelligence far beyond his years, and immediately began to prophesy good fortune for Elphin and his family. Wisely, Elphin took the child home to meet his father. At first, Gwyddno was annoyed to see his son return with nothing but a leather bundle, but when the bundle began to speak, and not only speak but prophesy he was impressed. They adopted the child and raised him as their own flesh and blood. Taliesin’s uncanny knowledge of when to reap and when to sow enabled Elphin and his father to prosper.
One day, thirteen years later, at the court of his uncle, King Maelgwyn, Elphin drunkenly boasted he had a Bard better than any there. He was clapped in irons for his insolence and the boy-Bard was sent for – now thirteen in body Taliesin came and pitted his wits against the court Bards, winning the Bardic duet by setting a riddle none could answer. With Elphin’s claim vindicated he was released from the dungeon, but he also released Taliesin from his service – he was a Bard too great for one man: he belonged to the nation, and so Taliesin became the Royal Bard of Camelot and the greatest Bard Albion has ever known.
Thus the legend of Taliesin was born, but the fame of the historical Taliesin was equally widespread. His epithet was Chief of the Bards of the West and his rank of Penbeirdd was the highest of the exalted class. It his said his learning, feats and endowments were so superior that he was created a golden-tongued Knight of the Round Table. After Arthur, whom he is said to have escorted to Avalon with Merlin, he became the Bard of Lord Urien ap Rheged, on whose demise he would compose famous eulogies. The legendary figure blurs into the historical in a mythically protean way. The Penbeirdd was said to preside over three chairs: Caer Lleon upon Usk, Rheged at Bangor Terwy and Gwddnyw. Morgannwg calls him the chair-president, suggesting he governed the Chairs and Bardic Colleges of the time. Clearly, he was an important figure, who set the highest standards with his skill and vast wisdom. His legacy burns brightly after the Bardic Tradition and essentially he can be called Bardism’s founding father. His radiant brow guides all along the Way of Awen.