in the Taliesin Tradition of Wales
The Taliesin tradition has been imagined romantically to be a repository of pre-Roman druidic ‘shamanism’. It would be nice if it were so. Others have attempted to show off a harder nosed and more cynical approach by imaging Taliesin to be simply a medieval and Renaissance invention. My intention here is to show that by far the greater part of the tradition has its origins in neither of these periods, but in the agricultural and wine cults of Roman Britain, the Mysteries of Ceres and Bacchus.
Before we look at the details, here in the broadest terms are just a few of the correspondences between Taliesin and Dionysos that cause me to suspect very strongly that the Romano-British element of the Taliesin tradition has been drastically underestimated. Both traditions have:-
· the chase of the infant by an angry goddess and
· animal transformation as disguise to escape this goddess,
· the going back into the belly of the goddess and being born a second time from her,
· the identity as child in the winnow basket and as fermented liquor,
· the common motif of the newly reborn child being sewn in the leather sack
· the floating adrift on the sea followed by the finding of the infant in bag or box,
· the identity as teacher of the art of fermentation,
· the etymology of the name,
· the common motif of inspiration derived from the liquor,
· the rebirth followed by concealment in ivy.
. the rescue of the god's favorite from a prison in which he has been imprisonned by a king, by summoning a tempest to destroy the prison
Taliesin is the centre of an intriguing body of Welsh literature. The consensus of the various sources places Taliesin in Wales somewhere around the beginning of the 6th century AD, that is to say not long after the official Roman withdrawal, and in a region into which the Anglo-Saxons had not moved. Commentators on the material do not yet seem to have acknowledged the source of the majority of the motifs of the tradition. Identifying this source leads to one of the strongest and to my mind most fascinating cases of comparative mythology I have ever seen, and proves direct rather than vague connections. The certainty of these connections we shall now examine, and it is worth doing because it sheds much new light and grants a fascinating new perspective on the Mysteries behind the Taliesin material, one that in no way undermines its Britishness.
The earliest written reference known is in the Historia of the monk Nennius, writing in the 9th century, and he says that Taliesin was ‘famed in British verse’ at the time of the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons, along with other figures similarly famed such as Talhearn and Aneirin. A major source of Taliesin material is the book of seventy-seven poems written down in the 14th century and known as The Book of Taliesin. In the 16th century a version of the Story of Taliesin, named as such, was written down from oral sources by a Welsh writer named Llewellyn Sion, then subsequently variant traditions were recorded by Owen Jones and Lewis Morris. Many of the poems are revealed as things Taliesin will have said at particular stages of dramatizations of this story, though the known sources of the story are later than the poems. And as John Mathews notes in his book Taliesin : Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland p.20, in agreement with scholars such as J.Wood in an article ‘Versions of the Hanes Taliesin’, there are also enough differences in the spellings of personal names between the manuscripts to tell us that the work was ‘widely diversified’ through various oral traditions by the time these versions were recorded.
To comprehend the material, one can only first approach via the myth itself, which deals with the birth, or rather births of Taliesin, together with an interesting subsequent life story that is believed to have been tacked on the end later on. Taliesin in his myth transforms into various animals while fleeing from an angry goddess, Ceridwen, who opposes his arrival because she favors her own son. In the poetry many of these transformations are mentioned - more than in the core myth - and they include bull and goat. We wouldn’t need to make much of the fact that Dionysos also took the forms of bull and goat if it wasn’t for a further curious similarity: in his myth he was turned into a goat to disguise him from an angry goddess, Hera, who opposes his arrival, because he is not her own son, but the son of Zeus by another mother, sometimes called Semele. So in both myths there is the disguise in animal form to escape the angry goddess, and the names Hera and Ceridwen clearly have a similarity.
At Hera’s behest, Dionysos was killed, but only seemed to die. From his heart a drink was made; this was given to Semele, and she became pregnant from it, and subsequently gave birth to him, so that he was born a second time, earning his name of the Twice-Born. Similarly, Taliesin, having finally turned into a grain of corn, is swallowed by Ceridwen, ‘the Harvester’, on one level certainly a symbol of the Earth taking the grain within herself then giving rebirth to the plant, for similarly she then gave him second birth, there now being less animosity between them since he is born from her he is her own son. But the seed was also used as a symbol for matter suitable for poetry, for Ceridwen is called ‘the goddess of many seeds, the seeds of poetic harmony’ in the Taliesin poem Cuhelyn’s Song. These two interpretations work synergistically to give the image of beautiful foreign matter that is reworked until it becomes resonant with the local land, and so may be accepted into the national cultural canon. I call this the Hera Bypass, since Hera stands for local cultural integrity in opposition to the exotic interests of Zeus. Ceridwen had a son for whom she intended the gift of bardic inspiration, but he was ugly, and the gift went instead by fortuitous accident to the beautiful arrival, Taliesin. It seems from this metaphor that the bards of Druidic accepted some foreign mythology as suitable matter for their poetry because it was too beautiful to shun. How did it arrive? Who brought it?
In the poetry this seed was found in a place where grain was being toasted to release its essence, in other words it was to be used for making beer, just as the drink Semele drank was obviously either wine from the grape or ale from grain, since the killing of Dionysos is actually the harvesting and cutting back of the vine. Taliesin says in The Hostile Confederacy:
“I rested nine months as a child in her belly
I have been matured
I have been offered to a king.”
Here, like Dionysos, he is the fermented drink. In fact, in the poetry Taliesin actually describes himself, after the rebirth from Ceridwen, as having been ‘created a second time’, in other words Twice-Born, just like Dionysos. Dionysos as an infant was sometimes called Liknites after the basket in which he was carried, and this seems to have been a basket used for sieving wheat, similar to a winnow, and Dionysos was the child in the winnow, (Virgil tells us of the “Mystic Winnow Fan of Iacchos”, the infant Dionysos). This is of course directly equivalent to Taliesin becoming a grain and, in the poetry, (The Consolation of Elfin) saying he was ‘small in his basket’.
After he was reborn from Ceridwen, Taliesin was tied up in a leather bag, and in this set adrift. Similarly, the traditions of Dionysos make mention of the leather sack, which was in fact a container called a korykos in which wine or mead was fermented. A rite of mead fermentation was carried out in Crete in a cave called the Korykos Antron, ‘the Cave of the Leather Sack’, we learn in Kerenyi’s Dionysos.
So a leather sack as a container for the god is another motif common to both the Dionysos and Taliesin traditions, and since on Crete Zeus was a bull god (e.g. the Europa story) the ‘thy of Zeus’ into which Dionysos was sewn is revealed as the bull-skin sack. In the Taliesin story this bag was set adrift upon the sea, and even this feature is similar to one present in a Greek version of the arrival of Dionysos, which comes from Pausanias. Here the young Dionysos, yet to find a nurse, was washed ashore in a chest at Prasiai in the Peleponnese.
Dionysos was of course the wine god, the inventor of the wine making process, one of his gifts to humanity. Similarly, in the version of the Taliesin story told by Lewis Morris Taliesin arrives on the shore of Wales and teaches two witches how to ‘boil liquor without heat’, in other words the art of fermentation. Anyone who has ever tried home brewing will know of the furious riot of bubbles that manifests seemingly out of nowhere.
Taliesin himself, in the myth, became inspired after drinking liquor from a cauldron, which reminds us of the Greek Dionysian initiation known as the Kraterzein, in which initiates drank wine from a crater as part of the preparation for the Mysteries. (Kerenyi, Dionysos p.363) The name of Taliesin is given in Latin as Telesinus by Lewis Morris, and this form, I suggest, was the original one, with the Welsh Taliesin, ‘Shining Brow’ or ‘Fine Value’, being a later version. The word teleo is a Latin and Greek word used to mean ‘to initiate’, and was used as a part of Greek names used for one ‘initiated’ into the Mysteries. Taliesin repeatedly refers to himself as initiated. What of the second part of the name, -sinus? Here a Latin scholar is required, but I notice there was a type of Roman drinking vessel called a sinum. Interpreting the name as he who was inspired from the chalice would make sense within the context of the myth of Taliesin. (There was a Roman consul in the time of Nero named Telesinus; he is mentioned in the novel Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus.)
In Greece a type of song was sung in honour of Dionysos in which the most common theme was the birth of the god. This song was called the dithyramb, and wine was revered as its inspiration. For example, the earliest known composer of dithyrambs is Archilochus, who said that he had first been inspired to do this “when the wine shook his mind with its lightning”. This refers to the birth of Dionysos from Semele after she was burnt up by the light of Zeus, the god of lightning. It shows that Archilochus sought inspiration from wine, while also linking to the Orphic variant in which it was the drink given to Semele which caused her to become pregnant with the god. In other examples the labor pains of Semele were performed by the singer. This is ‘male’ pregnancy – the fertilizing of the mind by the god in the liquor leading to creative incubation and poetic birthing. So poets of Dionysos in Greece claimed their inspiration came from the wine, just as the Taliesin material repeatedly honors the liquor in the cauldron as a source of inspiration.
As just mentioned, in the most common version of the birth of Dionysos, Semele, pregnant with the god, asked to see Zeus, the father of her child, in his full splendor, but in doing so she was burnt up by his light. Zeus rescued the infant from her womb and protected him from his light with a covering of ivy. And in the Taliesin poem The Hostile Confederacy, translated by D.W. Nash, the bard says ‘I have been dead, I have been alive, I have been hidden in the ivy bush.’ On top of all the correspondences we have looked at, this reference not in the Dionsysos but in the Taliesin material to rebirth and concealment within ivy must be taken as a total confirmation. Taliesin or Telesinus is a Romano-British Dionysos; his song of his origins could even be called a Welsh dithyramb. According to Jenifer Laing in her book Art and Society in Roman Britain the Bacchus cult became very popular in Britain, and one of the artefacts she discusses has, as well as Bacchus himself, figures of the group associated with Dionysiac initiation: panther, maenad, satyr and Silenus on his mule.
The nine maidens who kindle the cauldron of inspiration in the Welsh poem attributed to Taliesin, The Spoils of Annwwn, are almost uniformly referred to by modern commentators as the Celtic Muses, yet the full ramifications of the fact that this Roman idea (it was the Romans not the Greeks who made the Muses nine in number) is so central to the Taliesin tradition has perhaps not hit home. Rather as in myth the Twice-Born is hidden in the covering of ivy, so too has he, historically, been concealed within the body of Welsh myth, his true identity as the beautiful Old World plant god of wine, pleasure and ecstatic creativity being largely unrecognized. If part of the reason for this has been a desire for him to have been the product solely of native creativity, then this is surely misplaced, for the Twice-Born is no less Welsh than he was ever Greek, arriving too as he did in Greece from elsewhere. The Twice-Born is characteristically the arriving god, the god who navigates past the opposition of the goddess of indigenousness because he is so beautiful, so naturally an augmentation of her treasures. Greece does not claim his origin, yet none would deny that as Dionysos he became Greek.
For the Greeks it was Hera who was the goddess of that which is indigenous to Greece, the true wife of Zeus, making her the only possible choice of opposition to his arrival. Similarly the Roman Hera, called Juno, opposes the arrival in Italy of the Trojans in the Aenead unless they will not obliterate the native Italian culture and way of life; only if Jupiter (Zeus) agrees to this will she consent to the arrival. So too had it been Hera who was opposed to the affair between Trojan Paris and Greek Helen.
The Romans brought the vine to Britain, so it is logical that they would also have brought its cult, which they had themselves adopted from Greece as well as, quite possibly, from the heavily Hellenized Etruscans, but the Romans themselves were inventors of neither wine nor the cult. Resentment about the Roman ‘conquest’ of Britain may have helped to conceal Taliesin’s origins, but the idenity of the agents of his arrival have little to do with the nature of an idea that was Greek long before it was Roman and Egyptian long before it was Greek. ‘I carried the banner before Alexander’, says Taliesin in his poetry, and ‘I know who fills the river in the Land of the Pharaohs’. Taliesin’s poetic boasts about having been in such places as Ancient Greece and Egypt take on a whole a new light.
The Dionysian cult involved initiations where the candidate was raised from a mock death, an ascension associated with the rise after sunset of Dionysos in his lion-drawn chariot, that is to say Boötes, ‘He who drives the cart’ lead by Leo and Leo Minor, for these were, and still are, the stars of the rebirth of the plants, since these constellations are high in the evening skies during the greening of spring. He is followed by, as Lucius wrote, “the Maeanads, serpent-wreathed” (the Serpent-Bearer constellation), half-horse half-man Silenus on his mule (half-horse Sagittarius), and “Goat-Pan, shaggy in the underpinnings” (Capricorn). Virgil writes in the Georgics that Liber and Ceres (Dionysos and Demeter) are the brightest of the luminaries that guide the sky through the year, referring to Boötes and the adjacent Virgo, who ride high, like the crops of the fields, in the evening skies of summer. Taliesin for his part sings “My home country is in the region of the summer stars” in his poem Primary Chief Bard in the translation of J.Mathews (following Idrisson), and chastises uninitiated bards for not having made the journey of ascension into the stars.
The rebirth initiation featured strongly in the Dionysian cult that made its way into the Roman world, and this fits with the importance of initiation in the Taliesin poems. The initiation is to the status of poet, and there are several explicit references to this. For example, in Culhelyn’s Song, this Culhelyn is described as having ‘the exalted speech of the initiated poet’ (Mathews’ translation). Ceridwen herself in The Chair of Ceridwen sings “I am an initiate of the court of Don. I and Euronwy and Pryderi.” In Taliesin’s Bardic Law Taliesin sings “I have been with the initiates, with Math and the smiths.” Some sort of initiation to a bardic degree was clearly going on in ancient Wales. It is also clear that Satyr was a degree of initiation within the thiasos or Dionysian group, at least by Roman times, and this fits with another detail mentioned in Lewis Morris’ account of the Taliesin story, for he says that a contemporary of Taliesin in Wales at the time was a figure called ‘Aneurin the Satyr’. Initiates believed they would join the great Dionysian thiasos in the sky after death, the men identified with Dionysos as Boötes and the women as Ariadne who wears the Corona Borealis as her wreath, the two riding together in their chariot. And sure enough we find a similar funerary element in the Taliesin material: “Those who read my bardic books will find sanctuary in the Otherworld”, sings Taliesin in Taliesin’s Bardic Law.
To sum up the theory put forward here, I would simply say that the Taliesin tradition takes as its primary source neither pre- nor post-Roman matter, but Roman matter itself. Another connection to the Romans in the Taliesin material comes from the mentions of Virgil as Fferyllt, but one of these can only be of medieval origin. This is a Taliesin poem Cad Goddeu which makes reference to Christ and then immediately after says that Taliesin will be bedecked in gold because of the prophesy of Virgil. By this time Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue with its talk of the coming of a divine child and an age of peace according to some prophecy of the Cumaean sibyl had been interpreted as a prophesy of Christ. The Eclogue concerns the return of Astraea (“Justice”) from the stars (where she ascended as Virgo) back onto the Earth, in other words the return of the Golden Age. If Taliesin says he will be bedecked in the gold of this coming age then he presumably implies that by then his time will have come, his genius justly recognized, or something along those lines.
The second mention of Virgil in the Taliesin material is in the Hanes, the Story of Taliesin. Here Ceridwen “resolved to boil a Cauldron of Inspiration according to the books of Virgil, and the method of it was this: she must first gather certain herbs on certain days and hours, and put them in the Cauldron.” This might cause us to wonder exactly which book of Virgil is referred to. It is The Georgics which describe in poetry how the farmer times his activities to movements of the seasons, stars and heavenly bodies. “The Moon herself has appointed some days in one degree, some in another, as lucky for work. The fifth day eschew…The seventh is lucky to plant a vine….Observe the months and stars of heaven; noting wither the cold planet Saturn retires; into what circles of Heaven the fiery Mercury wanders.” So we are told in Part I of The Georgics. Also in this part is a passage about activities that may be done as one “sits by the late fire of wintry night, watching the hours through” while “the goodman’s wife with song beguiles her labour long…over Vulcan’s fire boiling down the sweet must, and scums with leaves the water of the bubbling boiling kettle.”
The Georgics could have been read in Britain at any time ranging from the Roman occupation, through the Dark Ages and into the Middle Ages. Further proof that these poems in particular were a strong influence comes from the fact that a passage from Part II turns up in a Taliesin poem. In both of these passages the respective poet asks about the cause of the swelling of the sea and of the darkness of night.
“May the lovely Muses…they whose Mysteries I bear…show me …what force it is by which the deep seas learn to swell and burst their barriers, and again of themselves sink back into their place; why winter suns make so much haste to dip in Ocean, or what obstacle it is that clogs the course of the lingering nights.”
(Georgic Part II)
“Whence comes night and day?
Why is the eagle grey?
Why is night dark?
Why is the linnet green?
Why does the sea swell?”
(Taliesin’s Bardic Lore)
The resemblance is far too close to be coincidental. It is interesting that both the Virgil passage and the Taliesin poem in question, Taliesin’s Bardic Lore, also commend the invocation of the Muses. Both claim initiation into the Mysteries of the Muses. The burning question is whether or not Taliesin made this claim simply in emulation, or whether some such initiation actually took place in Britain. The frequency of references to deriving inspiration from the cauldron as well as the cultic feel of the myth of Taliesin’s flight and transformations both suggest to me the latter.
The claim of initation into the Mysteries of the Muses itself is also highly reminiscent of a verse by that other great Roman poet, Horace, in Ode III.1 :-
I shun and keep removed the uninitiate crowd.
I require silence: I am the Muses' priest,
And sing for maidens and boys
Songs never heard before.
Though by Horace, that verse would sit perfectly comfortably in the Taliesin material. In Taliesin's Bardic Lore, for example, we read:-
Common men do not receive my knowledge....
I am a bard. I do not vouchsafe
My secrets to slaves.
Some have assumed that the later part of the Taliesin story, the events after Elffin has found the magical child, are a later addition, and that the earliest core of the myth is the series of magical animal transformations. I wonder, however, whether the reverse may be true. Elffin went to the court of Maelgwn Gwynedd and boasted that Taliesin was a better bard than any there. Elffin was thrown into prison, but released when Taliesin, knowing these things at a distance, summoned a tempest to shake down the prison. This parralels similar events in Euripides' The Bacchantes. A stranger, a priest of Dionysos, arrived in Thebes, and was imprisonned by king Pentheus. Dionysos, however, shook the prison to the ground and freed the stranger. Since this would appear to be another reference to Taliesin’s real identity as Dionysos, a pagan god, it seems easier to image these elements being composes in Late Antiquity, around the time of the end of the Romano-British period, than it is to imagine it during the fully Christian, even the Renaissance.
Another direct parralel is to be found in a late version by Iolo Morganwg, 1747-1826. Taliesin was out fishing off the Welsh coast when he was captured by Irish pirates. He escaped and floated ashore into Elffin's salmon wier. Iolo was surely drawing on one of the most famous stories of Dionysos - his capture by and escape from the Tyrhenian pirates.
As regards the series of transformations into various animals, a direct parralel to this is to be found within the Arabian Nights. This is curious. The actual animals are not the same, but the overall motif is. Are both based on some earlier protoype? The Arabian Nights were not published in Europe until much later than versions of the Taliesin tradition containing thus motif. Possibly the motif had been heard by visitors to the Holy Land, being brought back to Late Medieval Wales. A passing similarity - Taliesin changing to hare, Ceredwen to greyhound - may then have been observed and developped using the newly acquired motif. Why do I suppose that these to animals - the hare and the hound - were already part of the story?
This is part of a final argument for the classical origin of the Taliesin tradition, comiong from the connection to the stars. The first animal that Taliesin turns into when fleeing Ceridwen is a hare, and when he does this Ceridwen takes the form of a black greyhound, and chases him. The constellation of Canis Major has Sirius as its bright eye, with its long snout pointing westwards. It strains eagerly towards the West, and of course moves west over the course of the winter on the southern horizon, and over the course of the night if you stay up watching for long enough. Just to the west of it in the sky, the neighboring constellation is Lepus, the Hare. These are very suitable for mythologizing in Britain, for at this latitude they are not too far above the horizon when they pass to the south, so that they can be seen to be running over the hills.
Another of the southern constellations is Crater, which in Greece was seen as a wine-mixing jar. In fact this can be said to be the neighboring constellation of Canis on the eastern side, (with Lepus on the western). This of course corresponds very closely with the cauldron in the Taliesin story, for it was indeed used for mixing the liquor. In it Ceridwen was mixing the beverage with various flowers and herbs. It was because Taliesin had drunk from it that Ceridwen chased him, and he changed to a hare to flee from her. The constellation next to the wine-mixing crater is Corvus, the crow, and the name of Ceridwen’s ugly son, for whom she had intended the beverage in the cauldron, is Morfran, which Celtic seer/scholar John Mathews says means ‘Great Crow’. In fact in the Welsh dictionary morfran, literally ‘sea crow’, is a cormorant, but Morfran as the Corvus constellation next to the Cauldron is not an unhappy placement. While running as a hare Taliesin came to a river, and dived into it, becoming a fish. The constellation towards which Lepus the Hare is running is Eridanus, the River. So there is great potential for a painting of this scene, with Corvus, Crater, Canis Major, Lepus and Eridanus all in their respective places.
Corvus, Crater, Canis Major, Lepus and Eridanus
Old drawings of the Cauldron of Ceridwen and the Taliesin Hare being chased by the Ceridwen Greyhound
The image of Canis chasing Lepus is also found in Ancient Greek art, as in the detail above, on a dish painted by Nikosthenes, on which Corvus, Hyrda and Scorpio can also be seen.
Another Greek image of this scene is more interesting still, for it was uncovered from Highdown Hill near Worthing in Sussex. Again it shows the Hare being chased by the Hound. It has a Greek inscription, and the glass vessel is believed to have been made in Alexandria in Egypt, which again argues for a classical origin for this part of the myth.
The Hare and Hound Vase in the Worthing Museum, with transcribed image, right