The Bard by Benjamin West 1738-1820

The British Isles are so full of magical lore there are lots of folks using up their whole lives exploring it. I assume. Being a professional dilettante, I have only low, low amateur status in the field. I spent my adolescence pretty taken with the Arthurian legends; typical for my demographic this began with reading Mists of Avalon  by Marion Zimmer Bradley. There was a serious paucity of such fantasy in my youth, compared with now! Not complaining or anything. We had other stuff.

Amateur that I am, and ignorant American to boot, here’s the word on the street; the Welsh maintained their bardic tradition tooth and nail longer and stronger than their neighbors. Yes, there were actual competitions back in the day. The boundaries of the countries have changed over and over again in the last 2,000 years, more or less. And again, I’m anything but expert. As with anything worth knowing, it’s complicated; here’s a link to the Wiki article on bardic history. The fili or bard was your local storyteller, cosmic court advisor, poet, composer, shaman, healer, and musician, depending on all the variables.

Taliesin the uberfamous poet and bard goes back to the 6th century. He was not Welsh, so it is said; however, his work survives in the Middle Welsh Book of Taliesin.

page from old Book of Taliesin

Maybe my favorite thing about the alchemical stories I love to interpret is the fact that they advise us from the mists of ancient time. They provide a steady through line of healing that supports us, grounds us, in wisdom that is universal.  Here are our ancestors talking to us. Quite literally, for in the 6th C. not many folks were reading! Though my culture tends to focus on ancestors in the sense of blood line, I prefer a broader definition, which is pretty much all the influences that brought me here in this form. Of course it’s really a hopelessly broad category, but what can I say?

Several years ago I was entranced by the sound of the Welsh language when I listened to this storyteller’s video of the birth of Taliesin below. Taliesin, the mythic poet, is the transformed Gwion Bach, thus Taliesin is designated “twice-born”. And yes, “twice-born” is the very same archetype used in Christianity. For the archetype of rebirth, often featuring a holy child, is far from unique to that religion. Gwion Bach/Taliesin is also cast into the waters, as was Moses, to be found in a weir (in this case a fishing basket) by a prince named Elphin. The story begins with a king and queen wishing to aid their horribly misbegotten son to transform into a bright and beautiful person, like his sister. Transforming dark to light…

quote by Ramana Maharshi

I like that quote because it includes a reference to the nature of the sun, that primary of alchemical symbols. It’s simple; it just shines! From the human perspective, anyway.

Celtic symbolic story is often so multilayered and multidimensional as to discourage all but the most expert interpreter (which I am not). But it is my self-appointed task to explain some of these symbolic stories to the inexperienced, so here’s the Cliff Notes version of Taliesin’s birth (or listen to the nice Welsh man telling it in the video):

We start with the misbegotten son Morvran. His mother makes a potion in a cauldron that her helper, Gwion Bach, accidentally tastes, and therefore inherits all the light and beauty Mom (Ceridwen) was intending for Morvran. So then Ceridwen and Gwion have a magical shapeshifting chase; hound chasing hare, otter chasing fish, etc. Finally Gwion, as a grain of wheat, is eaten by Momma as a hen. Well, she’s pregnant from the grain, and unable to kill this child when he’s born, so she casts him upon the sea, as it were. And this other prince, Elfin, finds him.

Now the thing about Elphin (remember he is not the original misbegotten son, except in the symbolic sense) is that, though he was born to high station and it seems is well-loved, he’s very bummed out. Unlucky, as it were, the typical poor little rich guy. It happens. His Dad was hoping that he might cheer the lad up a bit by helping him win the proverbial lottery, so he tells him he can go on a special day to this special fishing-weir that always is abundant on that day, and draw out the abundant fish. Then he will feel lucky.

However, Mister Bummer-Man Elphin amazingly manages to fail at finding any fish in this weir-to-end-all-weirs, twice in a row (true to the alchemical teaching story, he gets 3 tries). The person who insists they are unfortunate, who is conditioned to living the unfortunate life, often just keeps on living out that story, is the point. The final day, no fish, but he does discover the baby (former Gwion Bach who has been reborn through the queen/goddess Ceridwen) and names him Taliesin, “Shining Brow”, because, well I bet you can guess- his brow was shining, representing enlightenment.

This little man represents Elphin’s cosmic side- soul, spirit, higher self, etc. And so, he sets upon giving Elphin some enlightenment pronto. In fact, his advice does cure Elphin of his depression and misfortune. To hear Taliesin’s first poem, called The Consolation (in English obviously), start listening to the video below at 6 minutes:

In case you thought either winning the lottery or the ancient version, tons of salmon, would fix your life, cosmic soul-baby Taliesin advises you look in other directions for joy and abundance, for “In the day of trouble I shall be of more service to thee than 300 salmon.” As in Grimms’ The Golden Goose I blogged about recently, Taliesin offers the advice of moving away from obsessing about what we don’t have, away from attachment to old stories of misfortune, into lighter and brighter ways of being. Taliesin pulls him up a bit short, and lets him know this project called a life is very much his responsibility, and the world owes him nothing at all- not even one salmon.

Do you think Welsh sounds awesome? In fact Wikipedia article says it broke off from Brittonic around the time of the historic Taliesin.