Radiant Brow: Taliesin
Of all of the bards of the Celts, none was as celebrated as Taliesin. Taliesin was by most accounts a genuine historical person about whom many myths and legends have sprung up. He is counted variously among the bards of King Arthur's court, in the company of the hero Bran, or in the court of Urien.
The historical Taliesin lived around the sixth century and was most likely a member of the court of Urien of Rheged. Little else is known of the true details of his life, except that he was of such reputation that he came to eventually be regarded as a semi-divine character of almost unlimited talent. By the twelfth century, he was a romantic figure of legend rivaling Merlin and even Arthur.
The name Taliesin means “shining brow,” meaning beautiful. The common story of his birth explains that he received the name from his foster father, the prince Elphin, who discovered the child sealed in a leather bag in the bottom of a fish weir.
Taliesin was of such reputation that poets often ascribed their best works to his authorship, rather than taking the credit for themselves. The majority of works attributed to Taliesin, therefore, were written by other hands.
An older tale of the events leading up to this discovery tells that the young man, the son of a bard named Henwg, was kidnapped and later abandoned by Irish pirates. The later, more romantic legend recounts Taliesin's birth as divine.
The Birth of Taliesin
The mythological account of Taliesin's birth begins with a young farm boy named Gwion Bach, who was chosen by the goddess Cerridwen to tend to her cauldron of knowledge, in which she is preparing a draught of wisdom for her son, a hapless ugly boy called Avagddi. The potion was complex and had to be stirred for a year and a day. Its first three drops would confer priceless wisdom and insight, while the rest would be deadly poison.
Gwion was to stir the pot, while Cerridwen's blind servant Morda was to tend the fire beneath it. At first, Gwion tended to his business without incident, but one day, as Morda added wood to the fire, the cauldron bubbled up and burst, sending three precious drops flying out to land on Gwion's hand. Gwion (like Fionn before him) unwittingly stuck his burned hand in his mouth and received wisdom and foresight, instantly becoming the wisest man in the world.
When Cerridwen returned and found that her precious gift of prophecy had been usurped by her young servant, she was furious and vowed to kill him. Gwion fled, with the goddess in pursuit. Gwion called on his newfound wisdom and transformed himself into a rabbit, but the goddess became a hound and stayed hot on his heels. Gwion then became a salmon and leapt into the river. Cerridwen became an otter and followed. Gwion became a wren, and the goddess pursued him in the form of a hawk. Finally, Gwion spied a farmstead, and concealed himself as a kernel of corn amongst many others. Undaunted, Cerridwen became a hen and gobbled up all of the corn, including Gwion.
Gwion had the last laugh, however, as the goddess soon found herself pregnant. She vowed to kill the child, but as she gave birth, she saw the child's great beauty and found herself unable to do the deed. Instead, she tied him up in a leather sack and disposed of him in the ocean, where he was eventually discovered by the son of Urien, lord of Reghed.
The Song of Taliesin
In a portion of the famous Welsh poem attributed to Taliesin, the bard recounts his magical transformations in a manner very similar to Amergin's invocation of Ireland:
A second time was I formed.
The earliest mention of Taliesin is in the poem “Spoils of Annwn,” which refers to an (assumed) older legend, in which Taliesin is one of the few to survive an Otherworld quest for the cauldron of immortality. In the second tale (or branch) of The Mabinogion, Taliesin is among one of seven survivors of a host who battled Mathowlch, and it is he who returns the head of Bran to England.