In the womb of the hag Ceridwen
I was originally little Gwion,
And at length I am Taliesin”
To start at the end. Marked on Ordnance Survey maps as Bedd Taliesin this little dolmen near Gwar cwm uchaf in the Parish of Llanfihangel Genau-y-Glynn is situated close to a minor road east of Tal-y-Bont on the west-facing slopes of Moel-y-Garn overlooking the Dovey Estuary in mid-west Wales. Said to be the remains of a Bronze Age round kerb cairn, this enigmatic megalithic structure has been badly disturbed with the comparatively small capstone, barely six foot long, today propped up on a pile of stones, it seems the original supporting stones were long ago robbed for gateposts, exposing the stone-lined cist grave many years ago. This is the traditional grave of the Bard Taliesin.
This prehistoric burial-mound has never been properly excavated by archaeologists, although it has clearly been disturbed on several occasions and a skull was reportedly removed from the site before 1800. Possibly owing to its isolation Bedd Taliesin is ignored by most studies of prehistoric chamber tombs in Wales. Scott Lloyd's recent publication 'The Arthurian Place Names of Wales' (University of Wales Press, 2017) fails to mention the grave of the bard. Perhaps the reason why Bedd Taliesin is ignored by so many is that it does not fit within the usual convenience of geographical grouping, such as The Black Mountain Group, The Gower Peninsula, Anglesey, Harlech and so on. In most of these groups tombs are found within a couple of miles or so of each other, rarely in isolation.
Indeed, Daniel's inventory omits Bedd Taliesin altogether. Under Cardiganshire (Ceredigion) Daniel writes, “At the present day there are no undoubtedly authentic remains of burial chambers in Cardiganshire, but there can be little doubt that some sites formerly existed along the coast, from the literary references that exist.”2 He goes on list twelve 'lost' sites in the area but does not include Taliesin's grave.
Odd that Daniel is aware of the additions to Edmund Gibson's edition of Camden's Britannia (1695), by the antiquary Edward Lhuyd, which he references in his catalogue of prehistoric chambered tombs,3 yet this is precisely where we find the earliest reference to Bedd Taliesin:
“Gwely Taliesin, in the parish of Llanfihangel Genau'r Glyn . . . ought to be the grave of the celebrated Poet Taliesin ben beirdd, who flourished about the year 540. This grave or bed . . . seems also to be a sort of Cistfaen, 4 feet long,- and 3 in breadth, composed of 4 stones, 1 at each end and 2 side-stones ; whereof the highest is about a foot above ground. I am far from believing that ever Taliesin was interred here.”4
In 'A Gentlemen's Tour Through Monmouthshire and Wales' (1781) Henry P Wyndham described the site thus, “The spurious sepulchre of the Bard Taliesin, who flourished in the 6th century and one which stood near the highways, has, within these five years, been entirely plundered and the broken stones are now converted into gateposts.”5
As a prehistoric tomb Bedd Taliesin seems genuine enough and said to date from the Early Bronze Age but has the typical appearance of a Neolithic monument. So why is it ignored; is it the association with Taliesin? There is a similar ignorance with 'Bedd Arthur' situated on the Preseli ridge in Pembrokeshire, south-west Wales, another site never excavated.
The Bard Taliesin
Taliesin is regarded as a genuine poet of the 6th century. He is first mentioned in the 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons); “at that time, Talhaiarn Tataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.” The Historia adds that this was during the time of Maelgwn Gwynedd, who according to the Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals) died in 547 of yellow plague.
Of these five early poets only the works of Aneirin and Talisen has survived. Aneirin is famed for 'Y Goddodin', a series of elegies to the men of the North British kingdom who died in battle at Catraeth. The poetry attributed to Taliesin is found in the 'Llyfr Taliesin' (The Book of Taliesin) a 14th century manuscript (Peniarth MS 2) containing a collection of some of the oldest poems in Welsh, many of them in praise of Urien Rheged (c.530-590) and his son Owain ab Urien, rulers of the kingdom of Rheged, and Cynan Garwyn, ruler of Powys who flourished in the second half of the 6th century. Ifor Williams identified twelve of the poems in the manuscript as being the work of a historical Taliesin, or at least contemporary with Urien and Cynan.6
The Book of Taliesin also contains prophetic and legendary poems such as 'Preiddeu Annwfn' recalling Arthur and his warriors journey to the Otherworld to steal the cauldron of the Head of Annwfn in which only seven return, presumably Taliesin is one as he includes himself on the trip. Preiddeu Annwfn has been dated to the 9th century, so could not have written by a Taliesin of the 6th century. Llyfr Taliesin was copied by a single scribe in south-east Wales in the 14th century. By the middle of the 17th century The Book of Taliesin had reached the famous library of Robert Vaughan (c.1592-1667) at Hengwrt, a mansion near Dolgellau in Merionethshire.
It is thought that the historical Taliesin was probably born in Powys, as demonstrated by the poems to Cynan Garwyn, 6th century ruler of the region. It should be of no surprise that the same community would also want to claim his grave but the prehistoric tomb Bedd Taliesen clearly has no proven connection with the historical Taliesin.
Indeed, the location of the Bard's grave seems to have been influenced by the 16th century 'Hanes Taliesin' (Historia Taliesin, or The Tale of Taliesin), which locates the story in North and Mid-Wales rather than the British Kingdoms of the Old North (Yr Hen Ogledd) with which the historical poet was associated. The 'Hanes Taliesin' is a legendary account of the life of Taliesin first recorded in the mid-16th century by Elis Gruffydd, consequently Ifor Williams postulated that there are essentially “two Taliesins”; one historical, who existed in the 6th century, the other a mythical, medieval creation.
The Tale of Taliesin
This tale is set in the days of Arthur when the legendary Taliesin started life as Gwion Bach, a servant to Ceridwen, wife of Tegid Foel. She was a witch who had a son named Morfran (Great Crow), who was so ugly he became known as Afagddu (or Y Fagddu) after the pitch black night. Ceridwen sought to give him the gift of wisdom and knowledge to compensate for his ugliness. She consulted her book on the arts and made a special brew from the herbs of the earth to give him Inspiration (Awen). This brew has to be cooked for a year and a day in a cauldron that is continuously stirred.
Ceridwen assigned a nameless blindman to stir the cauldron, while Gwion Bach stoked the fire underneath it. The first three drops from this cauldron would give the recipient extraordinarily wisdom and the gift of prophecy and the rest of the brew would be a fatal poison. While Ceridwen was asleep the three drops splashed out of the cauldron on Gwion Bach, instantly giving him the gift of wisdom. We hear no more of Morfran who, deprived of the brew, remains ugly and unenlightened, but in Culhwch and Olwen he is named as one of the three survivors of Camlann, Arthur's final battle.
Knowing that Ceridwen would be very angry once she found out Gwion ran away. Once she awoke Ceridwen ran after him. He first turned himself into a hare and she became a greyhound in pursuit. He then changed into a fish and leapt into a river: she then turned into an otter. He then turned into a bird in the air, and she became a hawk. Eventually, Ceridwen forced Gwion into a barn, where he turned into a single grain of corn. She then turned into a hen and ate him.
Ceridwen became pregnant because of this. Knowing it was Gwion she carried she resolved to kill the child at birth; but when he was born he was so beautiful that she couldn't bring herself to do it, so she had him put into a basket and throw him into the sea. The baby was found in a fish weir by Elphin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, the Lord of Ceredigion, while fishing for salmon. On seeing the boy's 'radiant forehead', he names him “Taliesin”. The babe then sang poetry to Elphin who took him home and gave him to his wife, where they raised him as their own. At the age of thirteen Taliesin wins a contest against Maelgwn's bards to release Elphin who is held captive following a chastity test of his wife.
This tale, like the poems of the historical Taliesin, is set in the 6th century and the days of Maelgwn Gwynedd, but it is essentially two tales in one; the first part, before Elphin's appearance, is known as 'The Tale of Gwion Bach' and is found in many manuscripts. The second part, 'The Tale of Taliesin' records the exploits of the young boy Taliesin, and is not so common but was recounted by Thomas Love Peacock's later novel 'The Misfortunes of Elphin'.
Celtic scholar Patrick Ford sees the separation of the two parts as straightforward, as 'The Tale of Gwion' deals with magic potions, shape-shifting and set in the days of the legendary King Arthur, a supernatural world similar to that found in 'Culhwch and Olwen'. Whereas the second part, 'The Tale of Taliesin', feels to have more of a historical bias. Ford states that, “while the two parts are chronologically consecutive, they are worlds apart in setting, and perhaps, in audience.”7
Although indeed an ancient tale, the earliest account of The Tale of Gwion is found in the 16th century work of Elis Gruffydd which he related to an oral account. Although Ifor Williams is surely correct in arguing that Bedd Taliesin has no connection with the historical poet Taliesin, this land of Wales is undoubtedly the home of the later Taliesin of legend and folklore.
As we have seen above Morfran disappears from The Tale of Gwion Bach when Gwion gains wisdom, but enclosed within a Triad in Culhwch and Olwen he is named as one of the three survivors of Camlann, Arthur's final battle:
“....and Morfran son of Tegid (no man placed his weapon in him at Camlan, so exceeding ugly was he; all thought he was a devil helping. There was hair on him like the hair of a stag), and Sandde Angel-face (no one placed his spear in him at Camlan, so exceeding fair was he; all thought he was an angel helping), and Cynwyl the Saint (one of the three men that escaped from Camlan. He was the last to part from Arthur, on Hengroen his horse)...”8
Later tradition records seven survivors of Camlann which agrees with the seven survivors of the raid on the Otherworld to steal a magic cauldron recorded in the poem 'Preiddeu Annwfn' from the Book of Taliesin, the bard himself is presumably one as he accompanies Arthur on the journey and returns to tell the tale. This theme recurs in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, the tale of 'Branwen uerch Llyr' in which the army of the Island of the Mighty carry out a raid on Ireland over a Cauldron of Rebirth. In this version, again, only seven survive, and once more, Taliesin is among them.
However, both accounts of the survivors of Camlann, Culhwch and the later account, include the three, Sandde Angel's Form, Morfran son of Tegid, and St. Cynfelyn which seems to hold some geographic significance to the tradition of Arthur's final battle. Indeed, by plotting the location of these survivors we may be able to pinpoint the battle site.
The Tale of Gwion Bach starts at Bala (Llyn Tegid), as Morfran son of Tegid affirms. About 20 miles south west of Bala is a valley called Camlan, at Mallwyd on the A470 road, near Dinas Mawddwy, south-east of Dolgellau. A further 20 miles south west of Camlan we are back at Bedd Taliesin.
Adjacent to the parish of Llanfihangel Genau-y-Glynn, and midway between the towns of Aberystwyth and Machynlleth in north Ceredigion, is the parish of Llangynfelyn centred on the villages of Tre-Taliesin and Tre'r Ddôl and the settlements of Llangynfelyn, and Craig y Penrhyn. The parish is named from the church of St Cynfelyn, about a mile north-west of Tre-Taliesin. The church, a Grade II listed building unfortunately now derelict, is situated within a roughly circular churchyard, indicative of an early Celtic 'llan'. A healing well, Ffynnon Gynfelin, is situated on the north side of the churchyard.
We know little of the life of Saint Cynfelyn and his festival does not occur in any of the Welsh calendars. However he is considered a real person who lived in the 6th century. He is said to have become a hermit, probably after the slaughter of Camlan, setting up his cell in the area on the edge of Cors Fochno (Borth bog) where the church dedicated to the saint now stands. It seems significant that one of the survivors of the Battle of Camlann should spend his last days just 20 mile south-west of the only location in the land to bear that name.
Situated on the Ceredigion coastline, between Borth and Aberystwyth, is a reef or causeway, known as Sarn Cynfelyn, extending some seven miles out to sea. This causeway was popularly believed to be associated with the sunken land known as Cantre'r Gwaelod inundated in the 6th century. The five causeways (sarnau) extending into the Cardigan Bay are relics of glacial moraine deposited during the last ice age forming natural reefs of boulders and shingle washed clean by the sea over thousands of years.
|The submerged forest|
Legend claims that after the inundation the king of Ceredigion, Gwyddno Garanhir, brother of Maelgwn Gwynedd, relocated his court to dry land, and established his main port at Porth Wyddno (modern Borth). Nearby, between Aberdyfi and Aberystwyth, he had a fishing weir constructed. As recent as the 18th century there were reports of sightings of the remains of human habitation at the far end of Sarn Cynfelyn, where a collection of large stones and boulders some seven miles out to sea form a reef known as 'Caer Wyddno', the fort, or palace, of Gwyddno. This is one of the sites claimed to be where the babe Taliesin was found in the fish weir.
Bedd Taliesin may have no connection with the historical Taliesin of the 6th century. However, it is for the individual to decide whether the land of Wales, where every rock, every mountain, every lake has a story to tell, is richer for possessing the legendary and folkloric Taliesin of the later medieval tales, or poorer. For me there is only one choice.
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
Notes & References:
1. Bedd Taliesin, Coflein website.
2. Glynn E Daniel, The Prehistoric Chamber Tombs of England and Wales, Cambridge University Press, 1950, p.215.
3. Ibid. p.118.
4. The first known mention of the grave is made by Edward Lhuyd in 1695 in the additions to Edmund Gibson's edition of Camden's Britannia, p. 647.
5. Chris Barber and John Godfrey Williams, The Ancient Stones of Wales, Blorenge Books, 1989, p.118.
6. Ifor Williams, The Poems Of Taliesin, The Dublin Institute Of Advanced Studies, 1987.
7. Patrick K Ford, The Tale of Gwion Back and The Tale of Taliesin, pp.159-187, in The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales, 30th Anniversary Edition, Univerity of California Press, 2008.
8. Thomas Jones and Gwynn Jones, Culhwch and Olwen, from The Mabinogion, Everyman Press, 1993.
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