For other uses, see Taliesin (disambiguation).
The Eden Valley between Appleby and Penrith, an area referred to affectionately as the heartland of Rheged in the praise poems of Taliesin.

Taliesin (fl. 6th century) (/ˌtæliˈɛsn/; Welsh pronunciation: [talˈjɛsɪn]) was an early Brythonic poet of Sub-Roman Britain whose work has possibly survived in a Middle Welsh manuscript, the Book of Taliesin. Taliesin was a renowned bard who is believed to have sung at the courts of at least three Brythonic kings.

Ifor Williams identified eleven of the medieval poems ascribed to Taliesin as possibly originating as early as the sixth century, and so possibly being composed by a historical Taliesin.[1] The bulk of this work praises King Urien of Rheged and his son Owain mab Urien, although several of the poems indicate that he also served as the court bard to King Brochfael Ysgithrog of Powys and his successor Cynan Garwyn, either before or during his time at Urien's court. Some of the events to which the poems refer, such as the Battle of Arfderydd (c. 573), are referred to in other sources.

In legend and medieval Welsh poetry, he is often referred to as Taliesin Ben Beirdd ("Taliesin, Chief of Bards" or chief of poets). He is mentioned as one of the five British poets of renown, along with Talhaearn Tad Awen ("Talhaearn Father of the Muse"), Aneirin, Blwchfardd, and Cian Gwenith Gwawd ("Cian Wheat of Song"), in the Historia Brittonum, and is also mentioned in the collection of poems known as Y Gododdin. Taliesin was highly regarded in the mid-12th century as the supposed author of a great number of romantic legends.[2]

According to legend Taliesin was adopted as a child by Elffin, the son of Gwyddno Garanhir, and prophesied the death of Maelgwn Gwynedd from the Yellow Plague. In later stories he became a mythic hero, companion of Bran the Blessed and King Arthur. His legendary biography is found in several late renderings (see below), the earliest surviving narrative being found in a manuscript chronicle of world history written by Elis Gruffydd in the 16th century.


Details of Taliesin's life are sparse. The first mention of him occurs in the Saxon genealogies appended to four manuscripts of the Historia Brittonum. The writer names five poets, among them Taliesin, who lived in the time of Ida of Bernicia (fl. mid-6th century CE) and a British chieftain, Dutigirn.[3]

This information is considered fairly credible,[4] since he is also mentioned by Aneirin, another of the five mentioned poets, who is famed as the author of Y Gododdin, a series of elegies to the men of the kingdom of Gododdin (now Lothian) who died fighting the Angles of at the Battle of Catraeth around 600 CE.

Taliesin's authorship of several praise-poems to Urien Rheged (died c. 590) is commonly accepted,[5][6] and these poems mention The Eden Valley and an enemy leader, Fflamddwyn,[7] identified as Ida[8] or his son Theodric.[9] These poems refer to victories of Urien at the battles of Argoed Llwyfain, The Ford of Clyde and Gwen Ystrad.

Taliesin also sang in praise of Cynan Garwyn, king of Powys, Wales,[10] and Cynan's predecessor Brochwel Ysgithrog is also mentioned in later poems.

According to legends that first appear in The Book of Taliesin Taliesin's early patron was Elffin, son of Gwyddno Garanhir, who was a lord of a lost land in Cardigan Bay, called Cantre'r Gwaelod, and Taliesin defended Elffin and satirised his enemy, the powerful Maelgwn Gwynedd, shortly before the latter died (probably in 547 CE).[11]

According to the Welsh Triads Taliesin had a son, Afaon, who was accounted a great warrior who suffered a violent death, probably in Lothian.[12] Taliesin's own grave is held in folk-lore to be one near the village of Tre Taliesin near Llangynfelyn[13] called Bedd Taliesin, but this is a Bronze Age burial chamber, and the village of Tre-Taliesin, located at the foot of the hill, was actually named after the burial chamber in the 19th century[14] though legend was traced by Edward Lhuyd to the 17th century.

Taliesin was originally known as Gwion Bach ap Gwreang. He was a servent of Cerridwen and was made to stir the Cauldron of Inspiration for one year to allow for Cerridwen to complete her potion of inspiration. Upon completion of this potion, three drops sprang out and landed upon Gwion Bach's thumb. Gwion then placed his thumb in his mouth to soothe his burns resulting in Gwion's enlightenment. Out of fear of what Cerridwen would due to him, Gwion fled and eventually transformed into a piece of grain before being consumed by Cerridwen. Gwion was then reborn and given the name Taliesin.

Legendary accounts of his life

Main article: Hanes Taliesin

More detailed traditions of Taliesin's biography arose from about the 11th century, and in Historia Taliesin ("The Tale of Taliesin", surviving from the 16th century).[15] In the mid-16th century Elis Gruffydd recorded a legendary account of Taliesin that resembles the story of the boyhood of the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhail and the salmon of wisdom in some respects. The tale was also recorded in a slightly different version by John Jones of Gellilyfdy (c. 1607). This story agrees in many respects with fragmentary accounts in The Book of Taliesin.

According to these texts Taliesin was the foster-son of Elffin ap Gwyddno, who gave him the name Taliesin, meaning "radiant brow", and who later became a king in Ceredigion, Wales. The legend states that he was then raised at his court in Aberdyfi and that at the age of 13, he visited King Maelgwn Gwynedd, Elffin's uncle, and correctly prophesied the manner and imminence of Maelgwn's death. A number of medieval poems attributed to Taliesin allude to the legend but these postdate the historical poet's floruit considerably.

The idea that he was a bard at the court of King Arthur dates back at least to the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, perhaps a product of the 11th century. It is elaborated upon in modern English poetry, such as Tennyson's Idylls of the King and Charles Williams's Taliessin Through Logres. But the historical Taliesin's career can be shown to have fallen in the last half of the 6th century, while historians who argue for Arthur's existence date his victory at Mons Badonicus in the years either side of AD 500; the Annales Cambriae offer the date of 532 for his death or disappearance in the Battle of Camlann, only a few years earlier than the date of 542 found in the Historia Regum Britanniae. Taliesin also appears as a companion of Bran the Blessed in this era, by which time he was clearly perceived as a legendary figure who existed in many different times.

A manuscript in the hand of 18th-century literary forger Iolo Morganwg claimed he was the son of Saint Henwg of Llanhennock; but this is contrary to other tradition. In it he is said to have been educated in the school of Catwg, at Llanfeithin, in Glamorgan, which the historian Gildas also attended. Captured as a youth by Irish pirates while fishing at sea, he is said to have escaped by using a wooden buckler for a boat; he landed at the fishing weir of Elffin, one of the sons of Urien (all medieval Welsh sources, however, make Elffin the son of Gwyddno Garanhir). Urien made him Elffin's instructor, and gave Taliesin an estate. But once introduced to the court of the warrior-chief Taliesin became his foremost bard, followed him in his wars, and wrote of his victories.[2]


His name was used, spelled as Taliessin in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King. The modern Welsh poet John Davies of Denbighshire (1841–94) took the bardic name of Taliesin Hiraethog.[16]

He also makes an appearance in a number of works of modern commercial fiction that blend history and Arthurian legend, including quite a lengthy appearance in Bernard Cornwell's Warlord Chronicles, Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionavar Tapestry, and Stephen R. Lawhead's Pendragon Cycle, including most notably the first book, eponymously named Taliesin. He is also a central character in Moonheart, an urban fantasy novel by Charles de Lint. He also appears as the chief Bard of the Kingdom of Prydain in the children's novels of Lloyd Alexander which are based on the Welsh Mabinogion. The historical novel Radiant Brow – The Epic of Taliesin by H. Catherine Watling is based on "The Tale of Taliesin" and the poetry contained in The Book of Taliesin.

The American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose mother, Anna Lloyd Jones, was born in Wales, named his Wisconsin home and studio Taliesin and his studio near Scottsdale, Arizona Taliesin West in honour of the poet.

Deep Purple's second studio album was named The Book of Taliesyn in honour of the bard.


  1. The Poems of Taliesin, ed. by Ifor Williams, trans. by J. E. Caerwyn Williams, Mediaeval and Modern Welsh Series, 3 (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1987 [repr. from 1968; first publ. Canu Taliesin 1960]).
  2. 1 2 Griffin (1887)
  3. ("At that time Talhaearn the Father of the Muse was famous in poetry, and Neirin, Taliesin, Blwchfardd and Cian who is called Gweinthgwawd, at one and the same time were renowned in British poetry." - see Gildas et Nennius, ed. Mommsen, p. 205; Mon. Hist. Brit. p. 75), quoted in John Edward Lloyd, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 55
  4. Phillimore in Cymmrodor, xi. 134–8; Zimmer, Nennius Vindicatus, p. 78, quoted in John Edward Lloyd, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 55
  5. National Library of Wales, article Taliesin
  6. J. Koch, Celtic Culture: Aberdeen breviary-celticism
  7. "BBC Wales - Arts - Early Welsh literature - Taliesin". Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  8. "The Scots Magazine and Edinburgh Literary Miscellany". Archibald Constable & Company. 1 January 1808. Retrieved 21 June 2016 via Google Books.
  9. Charles Oman, England Before the Norman Conquest -
  10. Ifor Williams, Canu Taliesin (University of Wales Press, 1960), poem I.
  11. Based on Phillimore's (1888) reconstruction of the dating of the Annales Cambriae (A Text) - see Phillimore, Egerton (1888), The Annales Cambriae and Old Welsh Genealogies, from Harleian MS. 3859, in Phillimore, Egerton, Y Cymmrodor IX, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, pp. 141–183
  12. "The Welsh Triads". Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  13. "Llangynfelyn - Bedd Taliesin - Taliesin's grave". Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  14. Owen & Morgan (2007) "Dictionary of the Place Names of Wales" p.475
    • Ford, Patrick K. 1992. Ystoria Taliesin University of Wales Press: Cardiff.
  15. "Gathering the Jewels". Retrieved 21 June 2016.


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