The Birth of Taliesin

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. For example, an incomplete 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’:

X marks the spot

In 2012, the sea breached the defences 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.

Sometime 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 tops of four stakes from the fish weir found by Dr Bale.

The fish weir next to a petrified tree stump.

The sea defence boulders on the left were placed over part of the fish weir. The tide marker is just to its right.

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 sounds with echoes 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 (see map above).

In Elis Gruffydd‘s version of the tale, Taliesin recounts:

Myfi a fum yn y gwynfryn
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.

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4 thoughts on “The Birth of Taliesin

    • Yes, the storm revealed more of the petrified forest, although I would guess its been revealed before several times in the past, probably resulting in a rekindling the old folk memory of Cantre’r Gawelod, and of the rivers Lli and Archan.

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