Taliesin is conjectured to be a sixth century bard of Urien, the ruler of Rheged, but has taken on a status beyond this. The 'Book of Taliesin' is a collection of poems of a prophetic nature some of which, though not all of which, may be by such an historical personage. But he has become a symbolic character. Many know the story (in fact from the sixteenth century) that he underwent several changes of form (in accordance with a well tried folklore formula) while - in his original persona as Gwion Bach - being chased by the witch Cerridwen when he tastes rather than simply stirs the contents of her cauldron. His eventual transformation into the inspired bard is a million miles away from the conjectured historical poet.

But it's a good story and has made him emblematic of metamorphosis. Emyr Humphreys uses him in just this way as a symbolic representation of Wales in his cultural history The Taliesin Tradition. No fantasies about celtic shamans here, just the astute use of a cultural icon. Staying with imaginative fiction, the novelist John Cowper Powys presents him as a brilliant cook (clearly a familiarity with cauldrons is useful here!). But like most of Powys's characters, he is an extension of the author's life illusion:

John Cowper Powys

"Taliesin had indeed worked out for himself ... a really startling philosophy of his own. This philosophy depended upon a particular special use of sensation; and its secret had the power of rendering all matter sacred and pleasure-giving to the individual soul." [from his novel Porius]

This has as much to do with the .magical quest' of J.C. Powys than anything else. Like that poem in which Taliesin is said to claim being all things in all places, Powys lived his life by just such a view of the world, but one in which ordinary things were transformed in mythic fashion. As he says in his Autobiography (itself a great work of mythic fiction) :

"Posts, palings, hedges, heaps of stones -

they were part of my very soul."

As for the historical Taliesin, here's poem I wrote quite some time ago exploring his provenance:


Urien Rheged’s bard, I lit a spark

In the Old North where the dark

Came early for comrades cradled

In Cymru’s egg

and an Easter that was addled.


Still I sang my songs for him –

Not prophecies of the coming gloom

But celebrations of munificence,

Spells cast over the abyss

in complaisance.


Riches fall from his hand

Like spray cascading to the sand,

Beads trickle into pockets

Of poets, not gleanings got

From the chaff but gifts to lift

The heart even of strangers

In his hall. How many times

I have told him this:

“Until I gasp my last breath

And stare in the face of death,

My life wont be worth living

If I don’t praise Urien.”

This praise

For meat and mead

But not for God

Is my lord’s due, my rent

To life as it is lived here, a tithe

Of song apart from the nine that are sung

Secretly where the silent harp is strung.


They call this place Eden

And the river runs like silk

on its silty bed.

Light hangs in the air

late on midsummer nights

Bats flicker through the bridge’s

old stone arches.

This is shape-shifting time, hovering

on borders of history, place and occasion.

A motor-biker leans his steed

Into the curve and over the bridge

Heading for the mead hall.

A huge extractor fan wafts chip-fry onto the night air

But not here;

The vale of Eden widening westward

To Solway and Scotland:

Idon in Rheged

Running with the blood of the slain

Like wine for the victory feast.


Over the sea-river

In Galloway

Mary made peace with her God

But not her people

At the abbey of Dundrennan

And sailed from Scotland.

Rheged a realm divided

Taliesin’s voice dead in the lands

Of Urien, Mynyddawg and Gwallawg:

A Tudor rose;

Rules in London.


Taliesin is supposed to be the bard of Urien of Rheged, a sixth century early-Welsh speaking area in the area now covered by Strathclyde in Scotland and northern Cumbria.

This area of southern Scotland (including Gododdin in the east) was later known as 'The Old North' by the medieval bards of Wales who looked back to the 'Gogynfeirdd' (earliest poets) as their bardic ancestors.

The River Eden in Cumbria supposed to be Idon in Rheged.

Mary Queen of Scots left Scotland across the Solway Firth for the last time before being captured and imprisoned.

'Tudor' refers not only to this but to Henry VII who was seen as fulfilling the hopes of the Welsh that one of their number should once again rule the Island of Britain.

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