British Legend: The Song of Taliesin

by JoHarrington

A beautiful singing baby and the wrath of a shape-shifting Goddess are just two of the wonders that turn up in the childhood(s) of this legendary Welsh bard.

Taliesin Ben Beirdd actually existed. Though perhaps not everything told of his past could have been witnessed in the waking world.

I know exactly what you're wondering. It's what everyone thinks, when they first encounter the heroes of Welsh legend.

You pronounce his name: Taliesin (Tally-ess-sin) Ben Beirdd (Ben Beerth). The surname is a title translating as Chief Bard. But in this story, he hasn't earned that yet. His first name means Shining Brow. Nor has he acquired that epithet either, at the point where we come in.

Pull up to the fire and let me tell the tale of Taliesin.

Hear This Article Read by a Storyteller

Read It and Sleep asked my permission to perform the story told here as an audio piece. I was honored!

The Goddess Cerridwen, Muse of the Cauldron

Cerridwen is sometimes called a witch, or a Goddess, or the Welsh Muse of Poetry and Wisdom, depending upon who is telling the tale. In truth, she is all three.

She is interchangeably called Ceridwen, Kerdwin, Cyrddven, Kerridwyn, Cerridwyn or Kerridwen; or Dark Mother, Queen of the Underworld, Lady of Awen, Inspiration of the Bards; or Crooked Beloved, Fair Chorus, Bent Whiteness, Sacred Songstress, Crooked Woman.

But in our story, she is simply a mother wanting the best for her child. Like any mother ever, Cerridwen will respond with wrath and rage, when her child is deemed in danger. She will fight his corner for him. She will defend him to the hilt. She will work always in his best interests.

Remember that, as you hear the Song of Taliesin.

Fairy Cerridwen Canvas Print - Cerridwen Art by Eva Thomas

The Children of Cerridwen and Tegid Foel

Cerridwen lived with her husband Tegid Foel, in Llanuwchllyn, close to Bala in mid Wales.

You can't see their home anymore. A later legend tells how Tegid Foel messed up and his caer was swallowed up by Bala Lake. That great mass of water is still called Llyn Tegid (Tegid's Lake) in Welsh. The locals say you can hear the bells in his towers ringing, when the night is placid, but the waters are rough.

Others say that Tegid Foel never went away. He swims as a lake monster, sometimes seen beneath the dark surface of the llyn.

Even today, monster hunters come to Bala in mid Wales; to line its shores hoping for a glimpse of the lake serpent Teggy. Souvenir shops bill it as the Welsh Loch Ness Monster.

The Bards know better. They call him the God of the Lake. The magic goes on.

But in life Tegid Foel was a man. Or a deity. Or a hero and a chieftain. Most of all, he was a father, and Cerridwen's mate.

Their daughter was Creirwy (not to be confused with the 6th century Christian St Creirwy, who coincidentally lived in the same place, apparently at the same time). She was beautiful, a true jewel, and the darling of the Druids.

Then there was her brother Morfrân, whose name means Sea Raven or Crow, though his nickname was better known. Afagddu - utter darkness - as it matched his aspect and his soul.

Cerridwen wished him to get on in life. She wanted Morfrân to join Arthur's warband or, at least, his retinue. But her son would never make it. The surliness of his spirit played out upon his visage. He sneered in stupidity. He snapped impatiently at anything he didn't care to understand. He cared for nobody and nothing. He was void of all redeeming features, and this was his ugliness.

His mother sought to open his mind to the wonders of the world, so her son might take his place within it and make a future for himself.

Cerridwen reached for her cauldron.

Cerridwen Canvas Print - Cerridwen Art by Julie Koski

The Mysteries of Cerridwen's Cauldron

The cauldron of Cerridwen was crafted by Gofannon, the greatest smith to ever hammer metal upon an anvil in all Wales. It held the secrets of the universe, life and death, embedded into its very form. But for Morfrân, his mother needed more.

She conceived a spell that would tell him the stories of past, present and future; of things that were and things that weren't.

All history and legend, science and mythology; symbolism, meaning, methodology and reason; dreams and psychology, portents and data; mysteries and mindset; insight into nature, human nature, the nature of all that flew, walked, swam, burrowed or crawled; secrets, philosophy and the knowledge of the sage; meter, music and words were in Cerridwen's brew.

All that was known and yet to be known, she added to her recipe. Distilled magic and awen.

It took a year and a day to brew it. Sacred waters forming the base, with Words whispered into their depths. Each moon cycle saw another ingredient added; harvested at the proper time, when its properties were at their fullest. Dropped in with incantations of song.

But all this work could not be done alone. Even Goddesses (or muses, witches and wise women) have to sleep, and while she was out and about collecting her plants and pieces, her boiling potion still needed to be stirred.

Blind Morda was set to stirring it, once every six hours.

Cerridwen and Her Cauldron Figurines

The first is a wall plaque and the second a free-standing figurine of Cerridwen.

Blind Morda, the Servant of Cerridwen's Cauldron

Blind Morda was a local man, whose stream still runs through Powys becoming a river as it passes down through Shropshire's Morda Valley; and whose famous cave leads deep underground in the vicinity of the river, as it runs close to Llangollen and the Dee. It's said that any who step within five paces of the cave will be sucked inside and never seen again.

This is true, for it happened to lolo ap Hugh, the fiddler known to his friends as Ned Pugh.

He ventured one night to the Morda cave mouth, taking cheese and bread with him as defense against the fairy-folk, but feeling brave nonetheless.

It's not quite true that he was never seen again, because decades later, his old friend - a shepherd - happened to be strolling close by one moonlit night. He heard a fiddle song played wildly on the wind, so turned his head towards its source - the hillside wherein gaped the mouth of Morda's cave.

For a moment his astonished sight took in the vision of Ned Pugh teetering on the edge of escape.

His old friend's expression haunted beyond endurance; eyes staring with frightful insanity; clothes tattered; hair knotted, long and unruly; swaying like he could barely stand, but his fiddle arm playing on. Then as the shepherd watched in horror, Ned Pugh became mist and was lost again from view.

Nor was this quite the end.

Ned Pugh's Farewell | Ffarwel Ned Pugh

The legend became a famous Welsh air with lyrics telling the story.

As an old man, the shepherd - long since retired - was sitting on his pew in the church hearing the sermon. It was in the middle of a dark midwinter, when the gales and blizzards tortured the walls with howling. Hence people were startled, but not afraid, when the doors of the building blew open.

What did frighten them to distraction was the fiddle music carried in, which seemed to dance the whole length of the aisle and linger for a moment at the chancel. Then the sound disappeared like it had never been. The old shepherd recognized it. It was the tune he'd long since heard played, on that terrible night, when he glimpsed poor Ned Pugh.

It's said you can still hear the desperate fiddler raking his bow across the stings in that same, old song. All you need to do is go to the cave and press your ear against the stone. But who would dare do that?!

And there's a school of thought that says that Blind Morda, the stirrer of Cerridwen's Cauldron, was not actually a man.  At least not a human one. But who can say for sure?

But Blind Morda wasn't the only person serving in the making of Cerridwen's Brew. There was also the boy who lit the fire and fueled it, then kept it burning for a year.

Songs about Cerridwen

It's more than fitting that the Welsh Muse of Poetry and Song should have so many composed in Her honor. Here are just a selection.

Gwion Bach, the Boy Who Fueled Cerridwen's Fire

He is us. He is the everyman in that chamber, a witness to all that occurred. Because Cerridwen knew that true magic resides in the mundane and the everyday.

Gwion Bach was chosen because he was so ordinary. Nothing distinguished him from the mass of Britons out there.

Just a young boy, and the son of pig farmers from nearby Bala, he could not begin to understand what was going on in that room.

His job was simply to gather wood from the forest and carry it down to the chamber, wherein lay Cerridwen's cauldron bubbling away. He built up the stockpile, and burned it bit by bit, feeding fuel to the fire whenever the inferno would dip.

For a year and a day the adolescent did this and never did find out why.

Until that day, when everything changed and nothing would ever again be the same. Not the fire, the wood, the cauldron and the room, not Gwion Bach. Especially not Gwion Bach.

You see, Cerridwen's potion had these properties - once it was done, it was done; there was no waiting and no re-brewing.

The time had to be precisely right and then the awen would issue forth. Transformation magic concentrated in just three drops, and after that pure poison.

Where was she when it happened? Perhaps even Cerridwen can miscalculate; maybe she didn't even know.

She was out and about, not even in the chamber, when her cauldron answered Blind Morda's stirring with a whooshing thunder. Its contents screaming upwards and three drops rising high into the air and out.

Who can say what Cerridwen knew. The Goddess of Wisdom wasn't there.

But Gwion Bach was in the room and he started at the sound. Some versions tell of how instinct or greed pushed him forward, knocking Blind Morda out of the way, mouth wide and ready for when the three drops fell.

Others say he was knelt beside the cauldron at the time, hand out-stretched to feed another branch into the flames. That he froze in that position when the moment hit. It was accident or luck (or coincidence and curse), but when the scalding drops fell, they landed on his fingers.

Gwion Bach put his fingers in his mouth. He sucked the pain from his hand. He imbibed the precious awen from them.

And with a shrieking cacophony, the cauldron split in two. Its poisonous contents drowning the room and seeping into a nearby stream. It could never be used again.

The Transformations of Gwion Bach and Cerridwen

Gwion Bach knew everything. All the accumulated knowledge of time and space was flooding through his consciousness and his blood. One thing he knew most of all. It was time to run.

He didn't get a great head start on Cerridwen, but he got one. He sensed the moment that she returned and saw the carnage of her cauldron. He felt her wrath as a tidal wave and he ran as fast as his legs could take him.

Morfrân was thwarted, doomed to the darkness. His mother was coming, darting from her chamber, rushing as a Fury in Gwion's wake.

And the young boy changed.

Cerridwen Silver Locket

Cerridwen Pewter Pendant

He became a hare, leaping on across the heathland, into the forest, down the slope. But Cerridwen was after him. Shape-shifted into a greyhound, gaining ground.

Gwion Bach's thumping legs propelled him on through the undergrowth. Heart pounding in panic, as the greyhound howled in hot pursuit.

He saw the glistening silver ribbon of the river straight ahead, and Gwion Bach transformed.

He was a salmon now! Turning back from fighting the current, flicking powerful fins to let it take him swiftly on away from here and danger.

But Cerridwen had seen and she was right on top of him. No longer a greyhound, but an otter! Snarling teeth and terrible claws ripping into the waters, so close, too close, Gwion bucking in the waters, dodging grasps and avoiding snaps of the Goddess's ensnaring jaws.

Little Gwion leapt up and out, a salmon's jump from the churning tide, and up, up, further still. Gwion Bach became something other.

Pewter Cerridwen Pendant

Pottery Cerridwen Necklace

Gwion Bach was a bird! What bird he was, he didn't know, but he was flying high above, leaving the shining twist of water far behind.

He was free! Out of the otter's grasp, away from Cerridwen. His wings flapped in a frenzy, found the currents of the air and soared. His heart breaking with exertion; eyes seeking her in fright. His homeland lost to distance and height. His parents and their pig farm gone from view. He flew.

She was there! As a hawk swooping down upon her prey, she got a hit!  In agony and terror, Gwion recoiled from the wind, falling desperately, dropping like a stone, the green earth approaching so fast. He couldn't see her! His wings rushing in useless abandon, injured, trying to find purchase on the breeze.

She was coming! He couldn't breathe! Too little in his lungs to waste on screaming, though his mind was swamped in an endless wail.

But Gwion Bach had wisdom now, and as he rolled from her clutches, still plummeting, he recognized that and remembered how to think. He saw his strategy down below and with failing strength he took it.

Gwion Bach surrendered his shape and formed another for survival.

He was in a barn now. On the floor, in the dust, just one more grain of corn amongst so many.

Piles of them there, gathered in the harvest, heaped into mounds, random pieces scattered on the ground. Gwion Bach knew when Cerridwen came in. He sensed the hawk alight. He kept so very still. She could see him. He was in full sight. But hidden there in plain view.

He heard her cluck. Cerridwen shifted into a hen and began to feed. One corn after another passing into her gullet, yet her stomach was never full. The Goddess ate and ate on. One grain after another consumed by her appetite and her rage.

Until she reached him and there was nothing he could do. Gwion Bach was caught in the hen's sharp beak and he was swallowed into her stomach.

And Gwion Bach changed.

Books about Cerridwen's Cauldron of Transformation

The best journeys of all change everything, if only by offering another point of view.

Into the Womb of the Dark Muse

Cerridwen knew that she would give birth to Gwion Bach. She felt it the instant that a random grain of corn turned into an embryo and burrowed into her womb.

The Dark Mother spoke as her belly swelled with pregnancy. She told him things in the full knowledge that he was sentient. Trapped inside for nine whole months, with his mind and memory intact. Gwion Bach saw that he was helpless, that there was nothing he could change into which wouldn't kill him too.

For the moment he was safe. Cerridwen couldn't hurt him without hurting herself. She told him softly - hands pressed against her abdomen in a mother's holding - that she was going to slaughter him the second that she gave birth.

He heard her. He was Gwion, growing inside but not fast enough. He'd be too vulnerable, when he emerged. Tiny, defenseless, unable to lift his head up on his own, and whatever he turned into would be a newborn baby too.

Cerridwen whispered, "I will kill you."

Delve into the Mysteries of the Celtic Dark Mother

The Rebirth of Twice-Born Gwion Bach, Son of Cerridwen

Twice-born Gwion re-entered the world in the usual way, through a mass of blood in the violence of birth, bruised and gasping for a breath that ended in a wail.

It was April 29th 534 CE. Two days before Nos Galan Mai, which others call May Eve or Beltane. His mother held him.

His second birth mother Cerridwen grasped him in her arms, like she thought he might wriggle away, as she cut the umbilical cord. With fledgling newborn eyes unused to sight, he surveyed his erstwhile murderess, and the Dark Goddess looked at him.

He read it in her eyes before she spoke. You are beautiful, her gaze blazed back at him, and his aspect transformed into hope.

"I can't kill you." Cerridwen murmured, "But neither shall I keep you. I give you back to the world to sink or swim as you may." 

She bundled him into a tight cocoon and carried him out onto the bwlch. The mountain pass took them south, past the sacred graves of legend and down into the valley below.

Cerridwen followed the River Mawddwy to its meeting with the sea.

At Abermaw (now Barmouth), she took a basket and a hide, then took out her sewing kit. She settled the infant Gwion into the former, covered warmly with furs and unable to move.

He could not plead - she had not named him and in Cymric terms that means a lot - mutely he begged with his eyes.

Twice-born Gwion's Dark Mother Cerridwen stitched him inside the hide, basket and all. He smelled the oil slick upon the skin. It was waterproof, which was the best he could observe of that, but dark and claustrophobic too.

He felt her lift him once again, and knew that she carried him towards the bay.  Whether she chanted words of blessing then - or asked the sea God Dylan Eil Ton to see him safe - the helpless infant could not tell.

Her words were drowned out by the waves and a castaway newborn's desperate mew.

Goddess Cerridwen Poster

Cerridwen Ornament

There is this peculiarity about Bai Ceredigion (or Cardigan Bay in English). The currents pass in one huge circle, rushing in from the Irish Sea and sloshing around half the coastline of West Wales, as if it was nothing but one huge bowl.

Or cauldron. Twice-born Gwion couldn't dismiss that thought either. Bai Ceredigion as one big cauldron, stirred and carrying its basket held passenger on its unseen tidal conveyor belt. Out to where such things will always end up - close to Ynys Enlli, which is how the old Druids maneuvered their coracles there, but closer still to the Llyn Penrhyn.

And there, trapped though he didn't know it as yet, upon the nets of a fisherman's weir, Twice-Born Gwion came to a stop.

West Coast Wales Canvas Art | West Coast Welsh Art Print

The Song of Taliesin, Cerridwen's Bardic Born Son

The Weir of Gwyddno reached out into the ocean. It captured more than fish on that May Day. Though its owner did not yet know it.

Old man Gwyddno was up with the dawn, walking down to the shore to check his nets with his adult son Elffin. Being Calan Mai, it would be a day of festivities, markets, dancing, drinking, feasting and generally enjoying themselves. Hence their urgency in hurrying to secure the catch. It would need to be prepared - some cooked for themselves, the rest sold to others - ready for the day.

There was indeed fish speared aplenty on the weir's sharp sticks, or frantically trying to free themselves from the nets. But there was also a basket covered in a stitched up, waterproof skin, and that wasn't usual.

Gwyddno held the stiff hide steady, while Elffin took his knife and carefully slit it open.

The baby inside stared up with old eyes, sea-sick and dull. But that could not distract from his gorgeous, little face.

Stunned as much by this aspect, as the fact of an infant in his nets, Elffin gaped, "There's a radiant brow!"

Except he was Welsh, so he said it in Welsh, and it came out, "Tal iesin dyma!"

It was as good a name as any, and accepting it gave the baby back his voice.

"Taliesin, I am!" Twice-born Gwion, now renamed, exclaimed his first words with this new mouth, before anyone could withdraw the epithet.

By now, I should imagine that nothing much could surprise Gwyddno and Elffin anymore.

The newborn infant Taliesin, three days at sea in a basket hide, began to sing. His verses made up in his head, chanted as soon as they were conceived; the tune unfolding as he went, his meter perfect, his beats in time. A bard born of Cerridwen and cast on the wave, composing as soon as he could speak.

Gwyddno and Elffin were the first to hear the Song of Taliesin. That weir found babe crooned it all the way home, then repeated it for Ellyw, Elffin's wife. There was no question after that, but the couple would raise him as their own.

And the Song of Taliesin was the tale that I've already told, only better.

It was the story of Cerridwen and her cauldron; the fire and Gwion Bach; three drops of awen and wisdom; transformations covering earth, water and sky; then nine months in the dark mother's womb and three days in the ocean.

The greatest bard that ever lived was Taliesin Ben Beirdd, a true born son of Cerridwen, sent precisely where he needed to be. The muse's ancient song goes on, through the harp that never could be destroyed; truths noted and understood by those whose bardic brow shines.

Ceridwen and Taliesin by Damh the Bard

You pronounce his name Dave by the way. Little private joke for you, me and every else who knows a word or two in Gaelic.

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Updated: 10/24/2014, JoHarrington
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JoHarrington on 06/24/2014

The honour is all mine. Thank YOU.

Read it and Sleep on 06/23/2014

Whoo I made it in! Thank you so much for letting me read this on my channel, its a great story and beautifully written.

JoHarrington on 05/19/2014

Sorry, I don't know how I managed to become so side-tracked for four days, that I neglected to answer any of these comments. -.-

I was about to ask which difficulties regarding 'essence', then sat and considered it for myself. Just off the top of my head, in Wicca alone, there are three or four distinct meanings. I take your point, and accept your alternative rendering.

As for Druidic initiation and Shamanism, I can definitely see the link there. But descriptive of the religion as a whole? I'd have to contemplate that some more.

frankbeswick on 05/15/2014

Once we use the word essence, we run into metaphysical difficulties, and scholastic thought tied itself in knots dealing with essence. I would prefer to say contact with the divine and leave the word essence out of the picture.

It would be worth exploring the connection between druidic initiation and shamanism. I suggest that druidry developed/evolved out of shamanic practices, as did prophecy..

JoHarrington on 05/15/2014

Isn't 'contact with God' just another way of saying 'in touch with the divine essence'? Expanding consciousness, touching awen and seeing beyond the doors of perception anyway.

I'm glad that we're in accord on the whole Gwion initiation into Taliesin thing. It always makes me feel like I'm definitely on the right lines when you agree!

frankbeswick on 05/14/2014

Moses was,pre-Christian, and and the radiance was thought to have come from his contact with God.

I did think that when Gwion was shut up for three days it might have been in a barrow/cave. However, the link of the myth to bardic initiation could be correct, as myth and ritual are thought to have close links. Myths explain rituals;rituals enact myth.

JoHarrington on 05/14/2014

Ember - *preen* I'm sooo proud of the art! I'm no artist, but that came out so well. *happy face*

JoHarrington on 05/14/2014

Ember - Outside the Celtic tales, I should imagine Moses is the most famous of the babies in a basket on the water stories. This is the bit where every other culture with the same legend comes in and says, 'No! I think of 'insert name' before Taliesin and Moses!'

There are whole horror stories to be written on the subject of a sentient being trapped in a womb. But then you think further and realize that we were ALL sentient in there! Albeit not an adolescent. In some versions, Gwion is a full grown man, though presented more like the village idiot. Personally I think the versions closest to the mark have Gwion full grown but ordinary, neither idiot nor genius.

Reality is such a subjective quantity in this story, hence I'll very carefully phrase it as - if you were there, witnessing events, I believe you would have seen Gwion shut inside a dark place dedicated to Cerridwen. Perhaps an old, re-purposed long barrow; or a stone cell; or a wooden coffin on a ship.

Possibly he would have been drugged, or undergone some kind of sensory deprivation, or simply meditated without food and water. (Rule of threes - three minutes without air, THREE DAYS WITHOUT WATER, three weeks without food...)

Between Llanuwchllyn/Bala and Mawddwy, there's a part where the river goes underground, then emerges as a waterfall above LLanymawddwy - i.e. the place so linked with Tydecho and Tegfedd. Can you see where my brain has been going with this? I suspected that Tegfedd (beautiful graves) was all about a Bardic initiation. The Song of Taliesin fills in several blanks, in the right vicinity, but no smoking gun. It's all so very circumstantial.

Or we can go further south, in the headland above the northern mountains of Aberyswyth. The place-name evidence there pings sooo much with Taliesin and Cerridwen, despite being a few miles away from Bala.

Either way, it's fairly obvious that the initiate eventually ended up in a skin on the open waters of Cardigan Bay. (This is the sea that you saw when we were at Aberystwyth. We went inland, but fundamentally followed the coastline up to Gwynedd and Caernafon.) Some interpret it as him being in a coracle, which does register with an alternative telling.

It's also worth knowing that, while the Welsh seas are governed by the God Dylan Eil Ton, Cardigan Bay is poetically called Cerridwen's Cauldron.

I wish you could hear the Song of Taliesin in Welsh. The metre and poetry is sublime!

JoHarrington on 05/14/2014

Frank - Now I did not know that Moses was radiant too, and presumably the veil means that it was also his brow. So that described his initiation into the Christian Mysteries too?

Ember on 05/13/2014

PS- your cover art is very well done :)

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