Taliesin and the AWEN /|\

What can we say about the three-fold nature of AWEN?

In The Book of Taliesin each of the three divisions of Awen are referred to as ‘ogyrwen’, although the word is also used specifically to refer to ‘poetry’ or ‘inspiration reflected in poetry’. In a number of the Taliesin poems the source of poetry is identified as a cauldron, most often identified as the Cauldron of Ceridwen. But in one poem there is a quite dense poetic construction in which the word for cauldron (peir) can also mean ‘sovereign’ which is often used as a metonym for God. So the words
“pan doeth o peir / ogyrwen awen teir”

can be translated

“when there came from the cauldron / the ogyrwen of three-fold inspiration”,

or they could equally be translated as

“when there came from the Sovereign (God) / the three aspects of inspiration”.

In the most recent scholarly edition of these poems[1] Marged Haycock describes this as “a nicely calculated ambiguity”, indicating that both meanings are intended here. The Book of Taliesin is a difficult text to interpret even for scholars and the poem from which these lines come - Kadeir Teÿrnon - has been described as bewildering and unintelligible. So any interpretations are provisional.But from its use here and elsewhere it is clear that ‘ogyrwen’ is the name of at least one of the three divisions of Awen, or it is a term describing all three ( so, ‘the three ogyrwen of awen’). But what is clear is that the poem deliberately conflates the cauldron and God (as the Trinity) as its source. We might regard this as a neat bit of theology or an example of clever bardic word-wizardry of the sort the Taliesin figure often boasts about.

This reference is, in fact, just one example of a debate about the nature of AWEN among the early Welsh bards. In a discussion of this issue Patrick Ford[2] cites an exchange between the bards Rhys Goch and Llywelyn ap Moel about the source of AWEN as to whether is comes from the “Holy Spirit” or from “The Cauldron of Ceridwen” and also cites a line from another medieval Welsh bard, called Prydydd y Moch, who conflates the two options, though less cleverly than in the example above from Taliesin, with the line “The Lord God gives me sweet awen , as from the cauldron of Ceridwen”.

What is going on here? Patrick Ford comments; “It seems appropriate that the persona of Taliesin, as representative of the old native tradition, should insist on the magical origins of awen and its use as a vehicle for traditional kinds of knowledge.” But he also refers to the view of Marged Haycock[3] that the medieval Welsh bards were also working within the context of Christianity and the person of Taliesin also had to function within this world view rather than as a “druid desperately making a last stand for paganism”. He looked both ways, expressing current Christian thinking about God conceived of as a Trinity, locking this into the concept of the threefold nature of AWEN, but also maintaining his status as one who had links back to the older world.

So Taliesin denounces the other bards not as Gildas had done for their ungodliness, but because they have lost touch with the real roots of poetry, with the authentic AWEN. Though at the same time he ensures that he cannot himself be accused of being ungodly. Patrick Ford sees the story of Gwion being swallowed by Ceridwen and cast into the waters in a leathern bag to emerge as Taliesin as a death and rebirth theme, still being retold in the sixteenth century in the version known as Ystoria Taliesin. The poet sacrificing himself to his muse, to be compared therefore with mythological figures such as Odin sacrificing himself to himself. But alongside this older notion AWEN is a developing concept during the Middle Ages and its divine nature necessarily takes on the prevalent Christian sense of divinity.

References: [1] Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin ed. Marged Haycock (CMCS, 2007). [2] Ystoria Taliesin Patrick Ford (Cardiff, 1992) [3] Preiddeu Annwn and the Figure of Taliesin in Studia Celtica18/19, as cited by Ford, though since this article was published Marged Haycock has developed her ideas in greater detail in the work cited at [1] above.


Potia said...

Do you think it's possible that the cauldron in the Welsh sources you have mentioned above could be related to the Irish text about the Cauldron of Poesy?
Link provided for anyone reading not familiar with the Cauldron of Poesy.

Heron said...

There's a lot of discussion about links between Irish and Welsh material. Certainly Patrick Ford in the discussion referred to includes references to the story of Amairgen and other Irish parallels. Disagreement tends to centre on whether the medieval sources of Irish and Welsh material can have any direct link, though it might be argued that they have a common origin.

There are also discussions about the links between different appearances of objects like the Cauldron which can tend to interpret one example in terms of the others. We might suppose that every time the Cauldron appears it is the 'same' one. Or that there could have been several different cauldrons. I think the idea of the Caudron as the source of magical power is what we need to think of here.

So there is the Cauldon that Arthur brought back from his raid on Annwn which is often discussed in relation to the Cauldron that was brought from Ireland and then given back to the Irish king by Bendigeidfran in the Mabinogi tales of Branwen.

But where, as here, different cauldrons are specifically identified as the source of poetic inspiration it seems to me difficult to come to any other conclusion that they are either directly or indirectly related. Though how is more difficult to say!

Hilaire said...

I find it interesting that the Caldron of Poesy text is also seeking, among other things, to reconcile Christianity with older beliefs about poetry, poets and inspiration.

In this text, Ireland’s legendary mythical poet, ‘white-kneed, blue-shanked, grey-beared Amairgen’, proclaims that poetic ability and inspiration flow from a cauldron - but it is a cauldron which God has given:

"Mine is the proper Cauldron of Goirath, warmly God has given it to me out of the mysteries of the elements"

The mysteries of the universe in the form of the dúile, the elements (which are an important concept in ancient Irish tradition) are also implicated.

So this is another way of squaring the circle, not through the ‘clever bardic word-wizardry’ of Taliesin as you neatly put it, Heron, but closer to Prydydd y Moch, though with more confidence and celebration.

So it would seem that both traditions, the Welsh and the Irish, were finding ways to reconcile these beliefs but in their own way.

Heron said...

Yes I think so Hilaire.
Out of theological and political necessity, of course, but also I think because - in spite of some polemical clerics in the Middle Ages, and some polemical pagans today - sources of divinity are not so rigidly categorised by those for whom the Awen is a living presence.

Heron said...

As a footnote to this post I'd recommend looking at:


There's a direct link to this site in the sidebar of this blog.