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The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 01 May 2015, 18:59
by Welsh Mythology
A recent blog I posted some of you may find interesting, I've included images and photos in the original:

Borth beach is a stunning bit of coastline just to the north of Aberystwyth, and probably the place where the mythical Taliesin was born from the sea, an old bit of folklore that may well be supported by a recent archaeological find.

Most versions of Taliesin's tale (but not all) locate his birth from the sea on the coast of northern Ceredigion. Elffin finds him as an infant, washed up in a skin bag, caught in Gwyddno Garanhir's fish weir. An incomplete, but early version of the tale recorded by Llywelyn Siôn, probably copied sometime before 1561, has this to say about the location of the fish weir:

. . . ag ynyr amser hwnnw i ddoedd kored i Wyddno Garanhir ar y traeth rwng Dyvi ag ystwyth geyr llaw i gastell i hvn ag yny gored honno i kaid gwerth kanpynt bob nos glamai . . .

. . . and in that time Gwyddno Garanhir had a fish weir on the beach between [the rivers] Dyfi and Ystwyth beside his own castle and in that fish weir was had a hundred pounds [of fish] every May eve . . .

This agrees almost exactly with another version copied by John Jones of Gellilyfdy in 1607:

Ag yn yr amser hwnnw yr oedd gored Wyddno yn y traeth rrwng Dyfi ag Aberystwyth garllaw ei gastell ehûn ag yn y goret honno y kaid kywerthyd kan punt bob nos kalan Mai; . . .

And in that time Gwyddno’s fish weir was on the beach between Dyfi and Aberystwyth beside his own castle and in that fish weir [a catch] to the value of a hundred pounds was had every May eve . . .

Patrick Ford, Ystoria Taliesin (UWP 1992), 135 (my translations).

Between Aberystwyth and the Dyfi, the only beach is to be found at Borth, a name derived from the much earlier Porth Wyddno, or 'Gwyddno’s Port'.

In 2012, the sea breached the defenses at Borth, causing much flooding. Soon after, the work of building new sea defences was undertaken on the beach. As always, the building contractors were obliged to have a team of archaeologists investigating anything of interest dug up during the course of their work.

Some time in 2014, such a team of archaeologists, led by Dr. Roderick Bale from Lampeter University, did come across something of interest. In a recent email I received from Dr Bale, he said:

“What we found and recovered . . . was a closely spaced line (around 30cm between each) of radially split oak stakes (around 80 in total) and one non oak roundwood post. The line (in some places a double line) ran east west pretty much opposite the final house in Borth . . . . The posts continued seaward beyond the limit of the sea defence construction zone but had been buried by sand last time I was in Borth a couple of months ago.

Age and function is (as yet) uncertain though the stakes preserve tool marks made with a flat bladed metal axe and of the few I have looked at in detail are sourced from fairly slow grown oak trees. It could certainly be part of some kind of fish weir, the rest of which may be buried under sand or has been removed in the past. . . . the structure is similar to other [fish traps] found on the Welsh coast, . . . .”

Dr Bale intends to do more work on pieces of the fish weir that he recovered, so a date could be forthcoming soon.

Although the fish weir has been buried under the sand since the excavation, a few weeks back, while taking in the calm sea air, I noticed that some of the stakes had been uncovered by the tide. Seizing the opportunity I dashed home and grabbed my wife’s camera, the resulting photos can be found at the blog: ... -taliesin/

Is this the spot where Taliesin was symbolically born from the sea?

As I’ve described in earlier posts, the whole area surrounding Cors Fochno and the Dyfi estuary rings with resonances of Taliesin’s myth. If Patrick Ford’s arguments in Ytsoria Taliesin (UWP 1992) are to be taken seriously, then the early hero Cynfelyn may have been Taliesin's teacher and initiator. Cynfelyn, as is typical of some of these early figures, became a saint who's church is only a few miles away inland at Llangynfelyn. In Elis Gruffydd‘s version of the tale (around 1540), Taliesin recounts (my trans.):

Myfi a fum yn y gywnfryn
yn llys Cynfelyn,
mewn cyff a gefyn
un dydd a blwyddyn; . . .

I was in the blessed hill
in the court of Cynfelyn,
in a shackle and chain
for a year and a day; . . .

Ibid, 78.

This may refer to Taliesin’s own initiation, bound and placed in a ‘blessed hill’ or mound (Bedd Taliesin?) at the court of Cynfelyn. Elsewhere in the same version of the tale Taliesin states:

y bardd ni’m gosdeco
gosdeg ni chaffo
oni êl mewn gortho,
dan raean a gro; . . .

the bard that fails to silence me [in a bardic contest]
will never have peace
unless he goes into a grave
under soil and shale; . . .

Ibid, 81.

According to Ford, Taliesin is alluding here to how a bard must experience the same symbolic death before he is accepted into the bardic guild. This symbolic death may have been followed by a symbolic birth, perhaps marked in ritual on Borth beach at an ancient fish weir.

We shall never know if any of these theories add up to historical fact, but the clues scattered across this old landscape and amongst the pages of manuscript hint at the symbolic acts of the medieval Welsh bards.

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 01 May 2015, 22:45
by Sciethe
Amazing. Can't wait for a dendro date on those timbers. If they turn out to be 5th/6th century...

With our work on Borrowdale that makes two physical objects surviving that could tie in to his known life. Are there more waiting to be discovered?

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 01 May 2015, 22:58
by Welsh Mythology
You say "our work on Borrowdale" . . . ? Please do tell.

Edit: OK, just found your paper. Cool! Let me have a read. ... ale%3F.pdf

Just had a read. Some comments:

Excellent bit of research. What an awesome find. I think the stones and trees do what you suggest.

The Taliesin research, although appealing, is sadly a bit out of date. I don't want to detract too much from the main bit of research that's been done (the alignments etc), but its probably worth noting some better sources for future reference.

p.10: Skene isn't the best translator. The Four Ancient Books are not reliable in terms of translation. See below also. It would be better translated as:

"I praise with the song of the Brythonic bards!
A generous chieftain's host of wisemen."

'Sywedydd' can mean 'astrologer', so that could be alluded to here, but its also used in more general terms to mean 'wiseman' or 'druid'.

p.11: Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of all Ages doesn't sit well with your more reliable authorities. It's all high flying stuff but not that historically accurate. F.e. Hu Gadarn was a medieval hero the bards more than likely borrowed from the French in the 14th century, then deified by good old Iolo and his dreaming ways in the 18th century. Unlikely to be of British origin, particularly at the time you're focussing on.

p.20: Again, Skene's isn't the best. Much safer to go with Marged Haycock who's very fine edition of the poem is by far the most reliable (Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin 2007, p.184):

"My stained sword
brings me honourable bloodshed.
. . . from the burial in which he was,
by a meek one was the boar slain.
He made, he remade,
he made languages/peoples*.
Radiant his name, strong his hand,
brilliantly did he direct a host;
they were scattered in sparks
from a drop in the heights.
I was a speckled snake on the hill,
I was a viper in the lake."

*['ieithoedd' means both]

This poem is attributed by Haycock (on some pretty compelling evidence) to Prydydd y Moch in the late 12th, early 13th century. Its a poem composed and performed in the persona of the legendary Taliesin. For many reasons its very unlikely to be a Taliesin 'original' as claimed by Skene. I suggest you reinterpret this section again with Haycock's translation.

There is another conversation that needs to be had about the imagery of the serpent, but its getting late so I'll leave that for another time.

p.21: Again, refer to Haycock for these lines, p. 79 . . .

"I'm a craftsman, I'm a radiant singer;
I'm as hard as steel, I'm a wizard, I'm a sage, I'm a craftsman;
I'm a serpent, I am desire, I eat voraciosuly, . . .

This is another legendary poem, not a Taliesin original.

P. 21: The poem doesn't refer to Hu; Skene got over excited (due to the missleading Iolo influence) and hyped the less exciting word hu / hud (or hy / hyd): a particle that can mean 'so', 'therefore', T.M. Charles Edwards has dated this poem also and if I remember rightly its 10th century.

. . . and so on and so on. Skene as I said is very unreliable. You need to get some better translations to do this kind of thing, and also leave any Iolo artefacts (such as Hu Gadarn) well alone if you're trying to talk about history in academic terms. Iolo's too reckless to be reliable in that sense. But yes, if the dating of the Yews suggests the sight was active Taliesin more than likely would have visited at least. As far as we can tell from the Ifor Williams edited poetry of his, he may well have been serving in Rheged off and on for perhaps a decade.

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 02 May 2015, 10:43
by Sciethe
Excellent bit of research. What an awesome find. I think the stones and trees do what you suggest.

The Taliesin research, although appealing, is sadly a bit out of date. I don't want to detract too much from the main bit of research that's been done (the alignments etc), but its probably worth noting some better sources for future reference.
Thank you, what a sheaf of excellent comments. As you have surmised/appreciated the geomantic, astronomical and arboricultural about covers our range of expertise, and we have maybe overreached ourselves speculating about mythology. That said, the stone monument and trees are a unit, and clearly a made thing with the most extraordinary physical qualities. It is most interesting that from the valley floor it appears to be a few dark trees among a scatter of boulders: secret but in plain sight.

The astronomy and arboriculture points to a post Roman provenance, which although debatable would make this the last stone monument known to be created by the ancient British, and I think it is a peak of the art, a masterpiece that speaks volumes about the Brythonic culture and learning that survived Romanisation. And it still nags away at me that Taliesin was right there in Reghed around the time that it was apparently created.

An academic from the university of Worcester is in contact and has done and sent me a new pilot study on the back of the arboriculture, he's visiting the trees probably about now to complete fuller survey -I expect considerable debate. I might hope to win any debate over the trees however.

Thanks again for those very useful pointers! And do feel free to work/speculate on the Taliesin aspect, we're not possessive and this thing will need many fine minds to unravel it, the surface is only scratched in proving the thing exists and roughly what it is, a hard job in itself!

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 02 May 2015, 12:53
by Welsh Mythology
No worries. Happy to have my t'pney's worth!

When I get a chance I'll get you some early sources on serpents. I'm guessing there will be others here with some good leads also. I think coupled with the alignment work you've already done, a bit of early Welsh serpent / dragon references would pad it out nicely. With the late dating of the complex its certainly ripe for interpretation in a Rheged / Gododdin context. There may well be some serpent / cross ideas to play with also.

Thanks for the amount of thought that's gone into the paper, very stimulating.

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 02 May 2015, 13:56
by Ianto
Diolch WM, very interesting post. Borth is a special beach anyway, but this info makes it even more special.

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 03 May 2015, 14:40
by Heddwen
Very interesting discussion. I live fairly near to Borth and the 'salmon weir' of Gwion/ Cerridwen fame. A few years ago I took part in a storytelling walk in The Ynyslas area by the author Lawrence Main. He suggests both verbally and in his books, that the salmon weir is in fact located firmly in the Dyfi estuary. I like his reasoning, not just because I am a local but it seems to fit with the myth of Cantre'r Gwaelod. The sunken land underneath the cambrian sea here.

I know that some people have cited the Taliesin myth as located in north wales and for the life of me I can not remember where exactly. But I don't agree with this! Its in mid west wales.

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 04 May 2015, 09:23
by Welsh Mythology
Hello Heddwen, yes Lawrence has some interesting ideas, and Traeth Maelgwn at the end of the estuary may well be the site of the mythologised horse race in the extended tale of Taliesin.

I think its quite likely that the Taliesin myth was used in several locations, depending on where it was needed as a symbolic narrative for use by bardic guilds. Problems only arise when we consider the myth a degraded type of history, implying there must only be one version located in one place.

Elis Gruffydd's version (writen sometime before 1553) locates the events on the Conwy estuary. There is possibly a good reason for this in that the Conwy is overlooked by the old Deganwy castle. Deganwy was a stronghold of Llywelyn the Great for some time. Llywelyn's chief bard was Prydydd y Moch, the probable author of some of the Book of Taliesin poems (including Angar Kyfundawt). This points to Prydydd y Moch, as a chief bard, making extensive use of the Taliesin persona in public performance. The Conwy valley also contains Maen-y-bardd (The Bard's Stone) and a 'Sarn Ddu' (Black Road) Roman road, features not dissimilar to those of Bedd Taliesin and Penysarnddu (see blog posts) up above the Dyfi estuary. There are also associations between Taliesin and Llyn Geirionydd up above the Conwy, although its unclear if these are early enough. Regardless, Prydydd y Moch's presence as the main lineage carrier for the Taliesin myth in the Conwy area hints at why the Taliesin figure was popular there. The similarities between the two locations (both being large river estuaries), also provides a connection.

In South Wales, up above Pontypridd there is a Gelliwion, or 'Gwion's Grove', another bronze age burial mound, and not far off there is another Black Road (Heol Ddu), again up above a large river catchment. Iolo Morganwg also records a Taliesin tale for this area, where Taliesin is a local of Glamorgan who is kidnapped by Irish pirates, escapes in a corracle out at sea and is washed up in Gwyddno's fish weir.

Here we have the Taliesin birth myth associated with three different areas which all have bronze age mounds with appropriate Welsh names (Bedd Taliesin, Maen-y-bardd and Gelliwion) close to ancient roadways that are described as black, and all close to large rivers, one in the north, one in the middle of Wales and another in the south. Although there is much more material concerning the mid-Wales Taliesin, the fact that the myth was made use of in two other areas (that hapoen to provide the widest coverage possible) is suggestive.

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 05 May 2015, 13:25
by DaRC
It's a thread like this that makes my spirit sing :grin: and it could only occur (in the virtual world) in the cauldron of a forum where discussions like this can be properly cooked.

Thank's all :applause:

BTW "early Welsh serpent / dragon reference" is an area of interest to me as I have a pet theory...
that the concept of the dragon arrived in these lands with the Sarmation cavalry, sent by Marcus Aurelius in AD175. ... 6kzMB3n79w

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 05 May 2015, 14:29
by Heddwen
Ah, yes WMythology. It was the conwy connection that I was thinking of. I do like the idea that the bards of old would have told 'area relevent' tales, yes I like it very much. I think that it says something that the bulk of the Gwion/Taliesin literature come from this area. As a local I guess that I am biased though. :wink:

Re: The birth of Taliesin

Posted: 05 May 2015, 15:59
by DaRC
I do like the idea that the bards of old would have told 'area relevent' tales, yes I like it very much.
A bit like Max Boyce :grin: used to tailor his jokes to fit in with his audience's local rugby club rivalries