The Awen in Welsh Tradition
Although ‘awen’is usually translated literally from Welsh to English as ‘poetic inspiration’ or ‘muse’, its resonance in Welsh is both broader and much deeper. In his poem ‘Mewn Dau Gae’ , the twentieth century Welsh poet Waldo Williams uses the phrase “awen yn codi o’r cudd …” (awen arising from the deep, or from what is hidden). In a commentary on his translation of this poem (1), Rowan Williams says that he didn’t feel able to translate the word ‘awen’ literally here because it would not adequately convey the sense in context, as it is “not just a matter of one poet’s imagination at work”. I would endorse that comment and add that it is just as much a matter of communal inspiration and a shared sense of something arising from the landscape and the ‘Deep’ from which the spirit of the landscape arises.
Rowan Williams further develops his discussion of awen in the Introduction to the translation from The Book of Taliesin which he has published together with Gwyneth Lewis(2). There it is linked both to bardic craft and to “the shamanistic gift of inhabiting a life other than the poet’s own”. Noting that the concept of awen is central to the Taliesin poems, the assertion is again made that simply translating the word as ‘inspiration’ or ‘muse’ would be misguided. Reference to the awenyddion as described by Gerald of Wales in the twelfth century is also made to reinforce the sense of “spirit possession” that the term also implies in these poems, and that this is the mark of a true poet rather than the lesser practitioners Taliesin often denigrates alongside monks and other clerics whose knowledge is seen as inferior to that of the bard.
Taliesin is seen, therefore, as a poet of “ecstatic utterance” and compared to the Greek Orpheus, defining part of the way of ‘being’ a poet. Many of the poems in The Book of Taliesin – both the so-called ‘Legendary’ poems and the ‘Prophetic’ poems – refer to the awen as the source not only of inspiration but of deep knowledge. The source of awen is also often located, both in these poems and in the poetry of other Welsh bards of the period, as coming from the Cauldron of Ceridwen. There is a sense, then, of awen as having a spiritual origin so that, in the more orthodox christian theology of the later Middle Ages, it is seen as coming from the Virgin Mary, or directly from God.
So how has that usage survived into modern Welsh where the dictionaries seem satisfied with ‘poetic inspiration’ or ‘muse’, but the example from Waldo Williams’s poem and Rowan Williams’s commentary on it suggest deeper meanings? ‘Awenydd’, in modern Welsh is often used simply as a synonym for ‘poet’, functioning in a similar way to the word ‘bard’ in English. So ‘inspired poet’ might be a good way of translating it, though it doesn’t usually imply shamanistic possession. Similarly ‘awen’ is what inspires a poet or anyone with a creative gift. It can be used simply in these terms, but the linguistic archive of Welsh still makes that deeper meaning available and the sense of it arising from the ‘Deep’ haunts its usage and implies a deeper mystery to the practice of an awenydd’s craft than simply having a way with words. So Taliesin’s strictures about the necessary qualities of a bard still stand!
1. ‘Translating Waldo Williams’ by Rowan Williams chapter in Cof ac Arwydd , Golygwyd gan Damian Walford Davies & Jason Walford Davies (Barddas, 2006)
2. The Book of Taliesin :Poems of Warfare and Praise in and Enchanted Britain, Translated by Gwyneth Lewis and Rowan Williams (Penguin Classics, 2019) * (Discussed separately HERE~>)