Some have supposed that Taliesin was a god whose identity – and perhaps name – became confused with the historical bard of the 6th century Brythonic warlord Urien of Rheged.[i] Be that as it may, it is certainly the case that many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin were written by later awenyddion who adopted his mantle and sought to develop his mythos. So his place among the gods, or his relation to them, became less clear as he gained legendary significance as a bard/awenydd. In their later literary representation, the gods themselves, and their relationships to each other, became interlaced as the weavers of song wove their stories into more complex narratives. What follows is an attempt to identify a few threads stitched into the later medieval tapestry.
In the poem known as ‘Cad Goddeu’ (Battle of the Trees) in The Book of Taliesin, Gwydion conjures a host of trees to assist in the battle. The poem also asserts that Taliesin himself was created out of plants, earth and ‘water from the ninth wave’ by Math and Gwydion, in much the same way they created Blodeuedd in the Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi. No reason is given for the battle in the ‘Cad Goddeu’ poem itself, but No. 84 of Trioedd Ynys Prydein says that it was fought for ‘a bitch, a roebuck and a lapwing’. The Fourth Branch of The Mabinogi contains other examples of Gwydion’s magical abilities, including an episode where he travels from North to South Wales to trick Pryderi into giving him some pigs that were a gift from the Otherworld domain of Annwn. Gwydion later kills Pryderi when they engage in man-to-man combat as part of the war which breaks out as a result of Gwydion’s trickery. But there might be an older version of this story in which Gwydion’s brother Amaethon actually raids Annwn itself, not for pigs but for a white roebuck and a young hound. The story is contained in the Peniarth manuscripts (No. 98B) and records two englyn verses with some explanatory prose. It is thought that the englyns must be older than the prose which refers to the ‘Cad Goddeu’ by an alternative name of ‘Cad Achren’. It says that :
“This battle took place because of a white roe deer and a young hound which came from Annwn. They were taken by Amaethon fab Dôn . Because of this Arawn, King of Annwn, attacked Amaethon.” [ii]
The text goes on to say that there was a person on either side of the battle whose name was not known but if guessed it would ensure that the battle would be won by the side that guessed correctly. On one side this person was a woman called Achren. On the other a man called Brân. It is then said that Gwydion sang two englyns:
Steady are my horse’s hooves as I spur him on
The alder sprigs held high on the left
Brân is your name, of the shining crest.
Or like this:
Steady are my horse’s hooves on the day of battle
The alder sprigs held high in your hand
Brân in your coat of mail with [alder] sprigs on it
The good Amaethon won this battle. [ii]
This must mean that Brân was with Arawn and the woman Achren was with Amaethon. If this is the Bendigeidfran of the Second Branch of The Mabinogi then his presence with the Otherworld troops might go some way to explaining his ‘blessed’ appellation and the description of him as a giant. The ascription to him of alder sprigs fits the ‘Cad Goddeu’ where alder is said to be in the vanguard of the battle which is also a characteristic of Brân in The Mabinogi. The name-guessing game is a well-established folklore motif, most well-known in the story of Rumpelstiltskin as given by the Brothers Grimm, though I know of no other example of it in Brythonic lore. The ‘Cad Achren’ story suggests that the conflict between Gwydion and Pryderi in The Mabinogi, which takes place entirely between North and South Wales, is a re-telling of an earlier tale of a conflict between the Children of Dôn and Arawn in Annwn. Amaethon does not appear with his siblings in The Mabinogi tale so a story which includes him does suggest an earlier provenance.
Instead of pigs this story cites a white roebuck and a young hound as the cause of the battle, two of the three items cited in the Triad as the cause of the ‘Cad Goddeu’. It would be helpful to know the significance of these animals in this case but the story as it has survived appears to be an incomplete fragment preserved only to (partly) explain the verses. Amaethon is usually identified as a god of agriculture and agricultural gods do sometimes become gods of war.[iii] Gwydion is clearly portrayed as a magical adept and trickster, consonant with his appearance in The Mabinogi. Although the suggestion is that Amaethon stole the deer and hound from Arawn, this may not be a raid on Annwn from Thisworld, but a war between different groups of deities. If so the war could be within Annwn itself as with the conflict between Arawn and so Pryderi and Hafgan in the First Branch of The Mabinogi, or possibly between different otherworlds. In one of the ‘conversation’ poems in The Black Book of Carmarthen, Gwyn ap Nudd speaks of his role as a harvester of souls not just in Thisworld but in Otherworld battles too [see HERE ~>]. In another of these conversation poems Taliesin refuses the invitation of Ugnach (a probable synonym for Gwyn ap Nudd –[ see HERE~>]) and instead says he is going to the fortress of Lleu and Gwydion. ‘Caer Gwydion’ or ‘Caer Aranrhod’ (the fort of Gwydion’s sister) are names for the Milky Way. Might they also indicate an alternative Otherworld and is this where Taliesin is heading?
If we are dealing with two opposing group of deities , one linked to Annwn and led by Arawn (another probable synonym for Gwyn ap Nudd) and also including Pryderi, Brân and indeed the other chief characters of Branches 1-3 of The Mabinogi, opposed to the family of Dôn, some of whom feature in the Fourth Branch but also include Amaethon and Gofannon, then where does Taliesin fit? The author or redactor of the ‘Cad Goddeu’ poem in The Book of Taliesin (probably the 12th century awenydd Prydydd y Moch [iv]), wearing the mantle of Taliesin, clearly wants to place him as a significant presence in the battle, and to suggest a divine origin for the bard, shaped by the magic of Math and Gwydion and brought into being by the Divine mother Modron. Taliesin is a presence in other conflicts with Annwn, notably joining Arthur’s raid in the ‘Preiddeu Annwn’ poem. In ‘Cad Achren’ he appears to be on the same side as Amaethon and Gwydion if this battle is the same as the ‘Cad Goddeu’ as the prose attached to the englyns sung by Gwydion asserts. But he is said elsewhere to keep company with Brân and Pryderi. [v]. When he joins Arthur’s raid on Annwn he might have a purpose other than the desire for loot as I have intuited [HERE~>]. He is a shape-shifter, a trickster and an all-round slippery customer who makes it hard for us to pin him down. He seems closest in nature to Gwydion who is himself a shape-shifter, a master story-teller and chanter of verse for magical purposes. It may be they both originate in a trickster deity linked to the source of awen who may have been tricksy in causing conflict between the gods too.
[i] Ifor Williams Chwedl Taliesin (O’Donnell Lecture 1955-6)
[ii]My translation from the text as given by Ian Hughes in the introduction to his edition of Bendigeiduran Uab Llyr (Aberystwyth, 2017) . What follows is based both on his discussion in Welsh (p. xxvii), and that of Rachel Bromwich in English in Trioedd Ynys Prydein (p.p. 218-19).
[iii] The most well-known example is Mars who protected agriculture as well as being a god of war.
[iv] As suggested by Marged Haycock : Legendary Poems From The Book of Taliesin pp. 27-30
[v] e.g in The Second Branch of The Mabinogi where he is one of the seven who returned with Bendigeidfran from Ireland and sojourned with the head of Brân in Gwales.
4 thoughts on “Taliesin and the Brythonic Gods”
These are complexly interwoven threads! There does some to be a unity between one groups of deities who become linked: ‘The Children of Llyr’ (primordial giants/gods), – Llyr and his sons Manawydan and Bran, Annuvian deities – Arawn and Rhiannon, and human ‘heroes’ – Pwyll and Pryderi who have interactions with them. Then a unity between the ‘The Children of Don’ – Gwydion, Amaethon etc. And perhaps a rivalry between the earlier wilder more primal gods and the culture gods.
As you note Taliesin takes sides as to his advantage…
If Arawn and Gwyn are synonymous one problem with that identification is that Nudd/Lludd is often seen as a son of Beli and Don which would place him not with the Annuvian figures but with the children of Don.
One of the things I’ve been thinking about recently is how the name Arawn is one of the few god-names with no clear meaning in Welsh or etymological links to Proto-Celtic. I’ve heard it translated ‘silver tongue’ (I get the ‘ar’ from ‘arian’ but how does ‘awn’ relate to ‘tafod?) and ‘exalted’ apparently from Hebrew but why a Welsh god would have a Hebrew name I don’t know. Any ideas?
I think of Beli Mawr as a divine ancestor rather than one of the gods (though his name might have derived from the Gaulish god Belenos) and most later rulers, in constructing their genealogies, made sure they were descended from him! As such he was also given family ties to the gods too. So when Lludd featured in a story making him a king of Britain, Beli was a natural choice for his father. Brân and Manawydan are also said to be nephews of Beli in another story. I think one attempt to link him with Dôn also involves making him a relative of the Virgin Mary!
No-one seems to be sure about the origins of Arawn’s name, so it’s not surprising that theories are tried out. I’m not convinced by ‘silver tongue’ either. If the ‘ar-‘ part is significant it seems more like to mean ‘over’ or ‘above’ but even there how this modifies what follows is not clear. I think the Hebrew theory comes from an attempt to see his name as a Welsh version of the biblical ‘Aaron’. But I see this as no more than an attempt to explain an otherwise unexplained name.
As a footnote to this, I found an 11th century text from Brittainy which mentions the visit there of “Taliesin the bard, son of Dôn, a prophet who had great foresight …” . which is an interesting placement of him as sibling to Gwydion et. al.
Oh how interesting!!!